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Former Rep. David Hobson: Not Cutting MOX Is My "Biggest Regret"

The MOX facility, still under construction, in October 2015 (Photo: © High Flyer, Special to SRS Watch)In a blog post at the website of Project on Government Oversight (POGO), David Hobson, former Republican U.S. Congressman from Ohio, and former Chairman and Ranking Member of the U.S. House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, has described the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River Site in South Carolina as "the biggest, baddest earmark of all time," and his failure to nix it, despite grave concerns, as his "biggest regret."

(A Feb. 8th New York Times article quotes Hobson on MOX, and features the High Flyer/SRS Watch photo to the left.)

MOX was originally a Bill Clinton administration program -- a so-called "non-proliferation" initiative, in collaboration with Russia, for the U.S. to "dispose" of tens of tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium, by converting it into civilian nuclear power plant fuel.

Astoundingly, what was supposed to have cost $1.6 billion and taken three years to build, has now been under construction for 16 years, and cost $4.5 billion -- with no end in sight. (The New York Times article above reports 2040 as the estimated completion date for the MOX plant -- 37 years behind the original schedule.)

As Hobson reports:

[E]stimates for finishing the job range between $25 billion and a staggering $114 billion. Not only is the project more than one-thousand percent over cost and years behind schedule, the MOX facility lacks even a single U.S. utility customer for its commercial reactor fuel. (emphasis added)

That latter point is most ironic, in that DOE was offering the MOX fuel to nuclear power plants for no charge! But as Ed Lyman at UCS has long made clear, MOX is difficult and even risky to use in reactors designed to use uranium fuel -- and a meltdown involving MOX would be worse for health and environment downwind and downstream.

Hobson also states:

It should be acknowledged that the US can continue to uphold its agreement with Russia without the MOX facility. The Department of Energy has identified several alternative strategies to dispose of the plutonium that have been independently verified to be more cost effective, timely, and safer.

Critics of MOX, including NIRS, Don't Waste MI, and many others, argued two decades ago for such an "alternative strategy," rather than the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility. Their preferred non-proliferation alternative to nix MOX was to mix the weapons-grade plutoium back into the high-level radioactive waste from which it came in the first place, and then dispose of the mixture as the forever deadly radioactive waste as part of the national high-level radioactive waste disposal program. Plutonium never should have been considered a commercial commodity, given its inherent safety and security risks.

In addition to POGO and Taxpayers for Common Sense, as Hobson acknowledges in his blog post, groups like Don't Waste MI, and First Nations in Ontario and Quebec, opposed MOX from the start.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. court in Kalamazoo, MI before federal judge Richard Enslen, by Toledo attorney Terry Lodge, on behalf of Don't Waste MI -- Alice Hirt v. Bill Richardson -- sought to block the lead test assembly for the MOX program. Lodge won a 10-day Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), due to the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) failure to fulfill its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) duties to carry out an environmental assessment of the risks.

However, DOE was able to overcome the legal resistance and force the Los Alamos, NM to Chalk River, ON "safe, secure" truck shipment (usually reserved for nuclear weapons transports) through Michigan in Jan. 2000. 

But, a threatened "human chain" on First Nations territory in Ontario led U.S. and Canadian authorities to finish the final leg of the shipment by helicopter. This would have been illegal in U.S. airspace, under U.S. law. Instead, it took place just across the border, in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario.

The transfer from truck to helicopter was carried out under armed guard by U.S. Marine Reservists on Canadian soil, in Sault Saint Marie, ON -- much to the chagrin of certain Canadian Members of Parliament. The helicopter shipment took place, even though the container holding the weapons-grade MOX lead test assembly was not certified for air transport -- raising the specter that, had the air shipment crashed, the container would have released its ultra-hazardous contents into the environment.

The person at DOE in charge of the MOX program during President Clinton's administration, and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's tenure, was Laura Holgate. Holgate is now a high ranking member of President Obama's National Security Council, assigned very sensitive non-proliferation duties at the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

As Hobson's blog post mentions, the George W. Bush administration, and its DOE, fully embraced MOX as well -- defending its continuance as essential to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's re-election bid. (Sanford lost the governorship due to an extra-marital affair scandal, but later won election to the U.S. House.) Instead, the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility has become an astronomically expensive "make work" jobs program in South Carolina, at federal taxpayer expense.

Nukewatch South/NIRS/Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and their expert witness, Dr. Ed Lyman from Union of Concerned Scientists, have officially intervened and watchdogged the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility's safety and security risks for well over a decade. Their contention focuses on Material Control & Accounting. The intervention still goes on.

The biggest irony of the MOX mega-boondoggle is that immobilization would likely have been completed by now, for a fraction of the taxpayer money already wasted. (DOE managed to accomplish vitrification at the West Valley, NY reprocessing facility, for example, although vitrification at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State has gone very badly, thus far.) Thus, MOX has been entirely counter-productive as a non-proliferation policy, as critics warned two decades ago.