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'Nuclear Waste' series targets seriously troubled project

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In four superb reports this week, The Center for Public Integrity’s national security team tells the disturbing story of how billions of dollars are being wasted on a specialized nuclear plant that was supposed to produce fuel for nuclear energy and reduce weapons grade plutonium. Not only could this failing enterprise end up costing as much as $20 billion, it may also create more nuclear weapons material instead of less. The Center’s Nuclear Waste series kicks off what will be an ongoing investigation into the world’s faltering efforts to control these most dangerous nuclear explosives.

Background

In 2002, the so-called MOX plant being built by the Energy Department on a Savannah River site near rural Aiken, S.C., was estimated to cost $1 billion and start operating by 2007. It began with good intentions, but has since been hijacked in part by Washington’s dysfunctional, money-driven politics and pork-barrel mentality. 

The idea started in the last days of the Clinton Administration when the U.S. and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 tons each of plutonium taken from retired nuclear weapons. This agreement was designed to ensure that this material would never again be used to build deadly nuclear devices. But after the expenditure of billions of dollars under three Presidents, the arrangement is close to collapse, due to a 600% budget overrun and Russia’s adroit diplomatic maneuvering. 

A closer look at the troubling history of the MOX plant reveals that the project had a weak construction contract; that Washington officials initially paid little attention to it, despite its scope; that mismanagement and shoddy contracting practices cost the government more than $1.38 billion in avoidable expenses; that its piping may be flawed; and that prospects for selling its plutonium-laced fuel appear dim. 

The true cost of the plant is now said to be more than $7 billion. The facility will cost another $8-12 billion to operate, and it won’t even begin working until 2019—about 12 years late.

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard, said that according to the government's own figures, using MOX to eliminate excess U.S. plutonium could thus cost around $243,000 a pound. Disposing of extremely hazardous industrial waste, in comparison, costs thirteen cents a pound. These figures assume that the MOX plant isn’t stopped dead in its tracks by cost overruns and the current federal budget squeeze.

It will not be a surprise that the MOX plant has survived threats before, 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 elsewhere. Also no surprise, many in the state’s Congressional delegation have benefited from a stream of campaign donations by major companies with a financial stake in the MOX project. And these same members of Congress have been lobbied by former government officials and ex-congressional aides on the contractors’ payroll. 

Read this entire four-part series to see public service investigative journalism at its best. 

Until next week.

Bill