A new multi-billion dollar plant being constructed by the Energy Department in South Carolina to transform Cold War-era plutonium into electricity will not be operated as planned, the department announced on March 4, making clear that the costliest nonproliferation project run by Washington will shortly be shuttered.
After a year of study meant to examine the viability of the two-decade old program, the department’s leadership made clear in budget documents for fiscal year 2015 that the plant is no longer affordable within budget limits set by Congress.
Initially advertised as a $1 billion program, the plant has already consumed more than $4 billion and was projected to cost up to $10 billion to complete over the next five years. Its total costs — including operation over 15 years — were estimated at nearly $34 billion by a special study conducted for Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
The plant, which lay at the center of a diplomatic deal with Russia that was blessed by three U.S. presidents, was supposed to transform at least 34 tons of plutonium withdrawn from retired U.S. nuclear weapons into so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel to be burned in civilian nuclear power plants. Russia agreed to undertake a similar effort, but the cancellation of the U.S. plan may affect that decision.
The department’s review “has determined that the MOX fuel approach is significantly more expensive than planned and it is not viable within the FY 2015 funding levels,” the White House’s Energy Department budget proposal states. “The Department of Energy is developing alternative approaches to plutonium disposition and will engage with stakeholders to determine a viable alternative.”
The budget calls for placing the two-thirds completed MOX plant, located in Savannah River, S.C., on “cold-standby,” and slashing the program’s 2013 budget of $657 million almost in half — to $311 million next year. U.S. officials have privately said they are looking closely at a much cheaper method of disposing of the plutonium that could still involve some of the 2,100 workers now employed in the MOX plant’s construction.
The budget language says the administration remains committed to the “overarching goal” of destroying the plutonium and “will work with its Russian partners to achieve the goals of the agreement in a mutually beneficial manner.” On the U.S. side, the project has been plagued by delays and mismanagement, but staunchly supported — and kept alive — by South Carolina’s congressional delegation.
South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.