U.S. puts South Carolina plutonium plant on hold in 2015 budget

by Reuters
Tuesday, 4 March 2014 22:37 GMT

WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Energy plans to halt work on a multibillion-dollar plant that would reprocess plutonium from nuclear weapons but faces spiraling construction costs, the Obama administration's fiscal 2015 budget revealed on Tuesday.

The budget proposal showed that the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration will put the mixed-oxide, or MOX, Fuel Fabrication Facility, on the Savannah River near Aiken, South Carolina, on "cold standby" as it seeks other ways to dispose of or reprocess plutonium.

The MOX plant would convert plutonium from nuclear weapons programs into a fuel for nuclear power plants, but is expensive and has gone over budget. The plant could cost up to $30 billion over its lifetime, a recent DOE study found.

The DOE signed a contract to build the plant in 1999.

The federal budget plan for last year said the MOX plant had also undergone turnover among engineering and technical personnel involved in its construction as workers left for nuclear programs in surrounding states.

A science advocacy group welcomed the move, saying the DOE had already wasted billions of dollars on what it termed a risky project.

Converting plutonium to a form that is harder to steal or re-use in weapons is "an essential long-term goal," said Edwin Lyman, a scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program.

"But the MOX strategy would have greatly increased near-term risks by making it easier for terrorists to steal plutonium during processing, transport or storage at reactors," Lyman said.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was incensed at the move and vowed to keep the MOX plant on track.

"This cannot stand," Graham said in a release, adding the decision to freeze the program represented a "fundamental breach of trust" with the people of South Carolina.

He said he would work with the energy agency and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to reduce costs at the plant. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Ros Krasny and Peter Cooney)

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