If Congress follow through on President Barack Obama’s plans to terminate the MOX project, employment at the Savannah River Site’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) would likely take a hit near the top of 2017. For now, MFFF construction will continue as the nation’s current pathway to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapon-usable plutonium. “The FY16 bill that was passed requires the department to continue construction so that’s what our budget reflects,” Brig. Gen. S.L. Davis, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s acting deputy administrator for defense programs, said during a Wednesday morning conference call. But Obama’s budget request calls for switching to a downblending alternative, one that would dilute the plutonium using inhibitor materials and dispose of it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M.
If Congress approves, DOE would begin conversations with CB&I AREVA MOX Services, the contractor in charge of site construction, for terminating the project. Initially, 200 craft workers and 350 salaried employees would be retained to safely close out construction, settle claims, and perform other duties through fiscal 2017. But approximately 500 craft workers and 750 salaried workers would be released once the department issues contract direction to MOX Services, according to the budget request. The workers would be released after 60-120 days, and would receive two weeks of severance pay.
Obama’s budget would appropriate $285 million toward the plutonium disposition program for fiscal 2017, which begin on Oct. 1. The proposal calls for $270 million to begin shutting down the MFFF and another $15 million to begin analyzing plans to switch to the downblending method in the outer years. The proposal puts the MFFF on schedule to completely shut down by 2021. It seeks $221 million each year over a four-year span, or $884 million, to shut down the facility.
The decision to switch to downblending has been in the works for several months, according to a “Sensitive But Unclassified” memo sent by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to Obama on Nov. 20. Moniz told Obama that downblending will be faster and cheaper and that Senate appropriators are on board with the change. “The House appropriators are concerned about alienating the South Carolina delegation,” Moniz told Obama.
His comment may have been directed toward the various committees on which members of the South Carolina U.S. House delegation have a seat. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D–S.C.) is part of the Democratic House leadership, Rep. Mark Sanford (R–S.C.) is on the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Joe Wilson (R–S.C.) is part of the Whip Team. Moniz added in the November memo that even if the effort to switch to downblending was unsuccessful during the appropriators’ conference, he “believes the groundwork has been laid for FY17.”
Anticipated pushback from South Carolina congressmen was confirmed after the Tuesday release of the budget proposal. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) called the attempt to terminate MOX “ill-conceived and dangerous.” He added, “I look forward to a new presidential administration taking office in 2017 that will hopefully honor the commitment made to South Carolina when it comes to plutonium disposition.”