Before retiring from Congress four years ago, David Hobson, a powerful subcommittee chairman, says he couldn't fathom why the Energy Department was so determined to build a multi-billion dollar plant in South Carolina for transforming plutonium into fuel for U.S. nuclear reactors.
Although the plant was billed as a noble arms control initiative, meant to dispose of the plutonium so it could not be used in weapons again, Hobson was troubled by its billions in cost overruns, a lack of demand for the reactor fuel, and the existence of cheaper alternatives.
Hobson, now 76, said in an interview that he concluded the project had three real aims: It was a multi-billion dollar jobs program for South Carolina, a Bush White House political gift to then-Gov. Mark Sanford and the state’s mainly Republican congressional delegation, and the potential kickoff of a much more ambitious and costly enterprise meant to benefit the nuclear industry.
None of those justifications appealed to Hobson, a Republican from west of Columbus, Ohio, that the Almanac of American Politics once described as “a practical-minded politician” with a steady demeanor at the helm of the House appropriations subcommittee on energy and water. But they reflected the heavily political impetus for the project, which so far has survived billion-dollar cost overruns, a series of construction snafus, and revisions to its goals that call into question whether the effort will shrink the risks of plutonium’s misuse.
In 2006, Hobson recalls, he abandoned his effort to halt construction of the plant, in the face of intense lobbying by the Department of Energy, the Bush administration, and fellow congressional Republicans. “It should never have been done,” Hobson said about construction of the so-called Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel plant at the Savannah River site. “I tried to kill it, but I was pressured not to.”
Officials in the Bush administration, Hobson explained, said the project was vital to Sanford’s re-election that fall. “I was told [that killing] it would hurt his chances of getting elected,” he said. They said that after the election, he could "do what you’ve got to do,” he recalls. So, he says, he reluctantly agreed to back down. Hobson did not say who contacted him, but his account was separately confirmed by a former aide.
The MOX fuel factory rising in the piney woods near rural Aiken, S.C. sounds a lot like the kind of mammoth federal public works project that fiscal conservatives say they love to hate: Experts say it will cost at least $20 billion to build and run over its lifetime. It employs 2,100 skilled workers, many of them union members, and has burned through at least $3.7 billion in federal construction funds. But it is nowhere near completion and some doubt it will ever be finished.
The MOX plant has survived threats before, howeever, thanks to the ardent support of a handful of powerful public officials in South Carolina and their allies in Congress, including some leading deficit hawks who publicly scorn earmarks.
Many in the state’s Congressional delegation have benefited from a stream of campaign donations by major companies with a financial stake in the project, and have been lobbied by former government officials and ex-congressional aides on the contractors’ payroll.
While the Obama administration wants to slash planned spending on the plant by half next year and maybe eliminate it in 2015, citing a history of mismanagement and budget troubles, the Palmetto State's politicians in the past have proven adept at keeping MOX alive by making the prospect of cancellation as painful as possible.