In the U.S. Senate, future of MOX program looms large

The chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development said Wednesday they are now looking to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee for recommendations on how to proceed. Until then they will hold off on recommending any sum of money to continue operating the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.

WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators were originally expected to decide the fate of the embattled MOX program.

But lacking consensus on how to handle the project’s unsustainable costs, they have punted the problem to their colleagues on an entirely different committee.

The chairman and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development said at a business meeting Wednesday they are now looking to the Senate Armed Services Committee for recommendations on how to proceed. Until then, they said, they will hold off on recommending any sum of money to continue operating the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.

“The (money) that we provide in this budget should contain a resolution,” said ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “That is, by the end of next year, we should be able to figure out a solid recourse.”

“There are many different sides to this argument,” chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., agreed.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a fierce defender of MOX and a member of the Senate energy and water panel, said he was actually gratified that fellow appropriators appeared committed to finding a solution. He even suggested he was happier with this arrangement than that which is currently being pursued in the U.S. House, where lawmakers are poised to recommend MOX funding at $340 million — the bare minimum to keep the facility operational.

“The whole goal is to keep the program open, intact, until we can find a way to make it cheaper, or an alternative,” Graham told reporters after the meeting. “The goal this year is to not cancel the program.”

And as a member of the Armed Services Committee and close ally of the panel’s chairman, Arizona Republican John McCain, Graham also said he was eager to take Obama administration officials to task: “If you’re looking for a good time, come listen to that hearing. I am going to lay into these guys like Sherman going through Georgia.”

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MOX was originally launched to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, the result of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia to destroy materials no longer necessary in a post-Cold War era. The project is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

The Obama administration wants to wind MOX down and deal with the remaining plutonium via an ostensibly cheaper, and faster, “dilute and dispose” method, likely to take place in New Mexico. The energy department is lobbying for $270 million to end the program and pursue the alternative track.

Critics counter that shuttering MOX would mean reneging on a deal with Russia at a time when relations with the U.S. are strained. This argument was recently bolstered by Russian President Vladmir Putin’s suggestion that he did not attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit because President Barack Obama is looking to get out of the agreement. New Mexico lawmakers also aren’t keen on the administration’s current plan, and there are doubts the “dilute and dispose” proposal will work.

“If you think you’re gonna cancel the MOX program and not have a viable path forward,” warned Graham, “then you’re gonna be in for a rude awakening.”

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.