Congress’ FY18 Omnibus provides the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility program with yet another year of funding. At $335 million, the proposed funding level is in line with enacted appropriations for MOX for the last four years, but new language in the bill suggests Congress could be opening the door to finally shuttering the program.
In 2001, the DOE estimated it would cost $1 billion to construct the MOX facility by 2007 as part of a program to down blend weapons-grade plutonium. More than 15 years later, the latest National Nuclear Security Administration estimates put the total construction costs at $17 billion, and the completion date in 2048 – $16 billion over budget and 40 years overdue.
In response to its ballooning budget, both President Obama and President Trump have called for the project’s termination in their funding requests for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019. In each of those requests, DOE has proposed using between $220-270 million to begin shutdown activities. Instead, Congress has enacted roughly $340 million annually specifically to continue construction of the MOX facility (see below). Although last year, they did allow $15 million to be used for studying a MOX alternative called “dilute and dispose.”
This year, after providing $335 million expressly for MOX construction, Congressional appropriators included a new provision that allows for the possibility that DOE could use those funds to actually move away from MOX. The new language borrows from the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act and stipulates that if the Secretary of Energy certifies and submits a plan for a suitable MOX alternative to Congress, complete with a life-cycle cost estimate that’s less than half of MOX’s, DOE can begin spending money to “eliminate” the project 30 days later. To do so, the Secretary would also have to ensure the current MOX site – the Savannah River Site in South Carolina – has a “sustainable future,” a key roadblock in past defunding efforts.
For the past 5 years, more than $1.4 B has been funneled to the stalled MOX project. Cost-effective alternatives, specifically the dilute and dispose process have been extensively studied. It’s time for DOE to pull the plug on the MOX project for good and move forward with an alternative.