Key U.S. lawmakers keep the program alive
This shift in the deal's fundamental terms -- from an agreement meant to shrink the global stockpile of plutonium to one that could expand it -- has sapped the support of some of the nonproliferation experts who helped create it. Frank von Hippel, a White House science official in the early 1990s who chaired a working group on the issue, said the MOX plant has "become from my point of view a pretty meaningless program" that should now be killed.
"The problem ... is that Russia doesn't intend to dispose of its plutonium permanently, right?" said von Hippel. "In fact, it's setting itself up to produce and recycle its plutonium indefinitely." That creates risks "that this stuff will get stolen, so in fact the security situation gets worse."
The last major attempt to kill the program occurred in 2005, when Rep. David Hobson, then chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, tried to block funding due to its rapidly rising costs and Russia's plans to shift from standard reactors to breeders.
"It should never have been done," said Hobson, now 76, about the factory's construction. "Everything I said would happen, has happened.... And there is no end in sight."
For years, the plant has been kept alive by South Carolina's mostly Republican congressional delegation, which includes many strident critics of federal spending, budget deficits, and mammoth public works projects -- including Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Joe Wilson. On the issue of the MOX plant, which employs 2,100 workers, they have been hugely supportive.
Sen. Lindsey Graham joined others on Capitol Hill in January in asserting that "the time has come for the president to face up to the need to control federal spending." Since then, Graham has lectured DOE officials at hearings on the diplomatic and security disaster that would ensue if the Savannah River project was halted.
With three other Republican senators, Graham pledged in a joint statement last month to hold up nominations and use the budget process "to ensure the [MOX] program moves forward."
Graham declined to comment for this article. According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity of campaign donations and leadership committee receipts listed by the Center for Responsive Politics, Graham has received $46,500 since 2001 from three private firms with a stake in the MOX project. In total, the firms provided at least $437,000 in campaign funds during this period to members of the four congressional committees that decide the Energy Department's annual budget.
Rep. James Clyburn, who has long been a member of the House Democratic leadership and who has boasted about helping block Hobson's challenge to the plant, collected $51,000 in political funding from the firms, the lobbyists and officers of which also donated $40,000 to a golf charity he runs. Clyburn's spokeswoman, Hope Derrick, said the congressman "is solely motivated by the best interests of the people and communities he serves in Congress."
The plant is being built by Shaw Areva Mox Services LLC, which until this year was a joint venture between the Shaw Group and Areva SA, the French government-owned international nuclear giant. Shaw, based in Baton Rouge, was purchased in February by the Netherlands-based Chicago Bridge & Iron NV -- which now controls 70 percent of the MOX project.
In the last three years alone, Areva and Shaw have spent a total of $6.3 million to lobby for their legislative interests, including efforts by at least four former congressmen and some former committee staffers that advocated spending on MOX and nuclear issues, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
Kelly Trice, president of Shaw Areva MOX Services, the lead contractor, has praised the progress at the plant. He blamed the overruns mostly on the unexpected difficulty of finding and retaining qualified workers and suppliers and a need to get regulatory approval for "every piece of equipment, every piece of pipe, the concrete, even the dirt under the facility."