MOX is ‘nowhere close’ to being 50 percent complete, NNSA chief says

March 21, 2018 GMT

The leader of the National Nuclear Security Administration told a U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday that she believes the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site is “nowhere close” to 50 percent complete.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who was sworn in as both the NNSA administrator and the U.S. Department of Energy under secretary for nuclear security Feb. 22, gave her opinion of MOX at the behest of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

The NNSA chief was in Aiken County on March 9 to visit SRS — and toured MOX specifically, among other facilities.

She was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., during her tour.

MOX is an over-budget, congressionally contentious facility that would turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel. It currently is still being built.

The DOE’s fiscal year 2019 budget request allocates $220 million to close MOX, a move both President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama have previously supported.

Gordon-Hagerty’s claim, which she said she was “confident” in because it’s sourced from information provided by a federal project manager, means she is entering the ongoing MOX completion melee.

Both U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have said MOX is approximately 70 percent complete.

“There has been so much misinformation provided,” Wilson has said.

On Tuesday, Wilson said he stands by contractor estimates. He also called for a fresh project assessment to establish an “objective, dollar-for-dollar comparison” of MOX and any alternatives.

When U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry visited SRS at the start of February, Wilson said he was sure Perry knows MOX is “indeed almost 70 percent completed.” Perry toured MOX during his visit.

On Tuesday, Gordon-Hagerty said her administration is working alongside Perry to produce official plans to shutter MOX.

Graham, during a Feb. 5 Aiken Rotary Club speech, said while he is sure of his estimate, the federal government necessarily isn’t.

“The big issue is: Is it 70 percent built or 30 percent?” Graham said. “Welcome to the federal government. We’re arguing where the damn thing is.”

Graham and Gordon-Hagerty butted heads during a confirmation hearing last month. Graham asked her why she so avidly supports dilute-and-dispose, also known as downblending.

Dilute and dispose — mixing plutonium with inert material and shipping it off to be buried elsewhere — is a MOX alternative.

Graham is a longtime supporter of MOX: In Aiken, he said he’d put up “one hell of a fight” for it. Gordon-Hagerty, on Tuesday, said dilute-and-dispose is a proven method that is cheaper and more efficient than MOX.

Graham could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.

Piled on top of all this is a 2016 review of MOX progress handled by the DOE’s project management and oversight office. That deep-dive specified MOX completion by 2048. In the same assessment, MOX contractors specified completion by 2029.

Simpson, during the subcommittee hearing, said he wasn’t sure who to trust.

“Because if I go talk to the contractor, it’s 70 percent complete. I go talk to the DOE, it’s 10 percent complete,” Simpson said directly to Gordon-Hagerty. “You said it’s somewhere in the 50-percent range. I have no idea what the full cost of MOX is or would be if we continued down that road.”

Gordon-Hagerty could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.