Augusta Chronicle: Good things come in threes

Jul 23, 2014
In The News

The $34 billion Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that passed the House recently is by no means perfect legislation.

But there are many important aspects of the bill to cheer about, not least the funding to continue the MOX project at Savannah River Site.

The bipartisan spending package allots $345 million to continue construction for the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility for the 2015 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. This temporarily would reverse the Obama administration’s plan to put the MOX facility on “cold standby” – a bureaucratic euphemism for termination.

The White House plan to shutter the 60-percent-complete project would cost the region about 1,800 jobs and force the Department of Energy to explore other options to dispose of Cold War-era plutonium. The MOX option turns the plutonium into power-plant fuel as part of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Russia.

“I am grateful that we were able to provide MOX with the additional resources to move forward with its completion, which is necessary to fulfill our international nonproliferation agreements,” Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said after the bill’s approval.

But the MOX lifeline is hardly a done deal.

A Senate version of the bill, which sets MOX funding at $400 million, has ground to a halt, along with the rest of the appropriations process, amid squabbling over amendments.

And the White House – already incensed by riders to the bill limiting federal agencies’ environmental regulatory powers – has pledged a veto, saying MOX funding “prevents the development of lower-cost technologies for disposal of excess plutonium.”

That statement is plain false.

Even if you were to believe the nebulous $31 billion “life-cycle” cost estimate Obama bureaucrats attach to MOX – which we don’t, and you shouldn’t – completing the project still is cheaper than three of the four Energy Department-proposed alternatives. The price tag of the fourth DOE option is unknown.

MOX advocates, including contractor Shaw AREVA MOX Services, say total costs are closer to $17 billion.

Only a federal bureaucrat could find wisdom in halting a project more than halfway complete to start over from scratch on one of four alternatives that is likely to end up costing more.

We see Obama’s plan to shutter the MOX facility for what it is – a blatantly partisan attempt to punish a conservative region. There’s nothing “wrong” with the technology, the facility or the contractor. The MOX project just happens to be in a red state.

House lawmakers also wisely decided to keep the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository alive by allocating $55 million to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “support continued adjudication” of the facility’s licensing application.

Like MOX, Yucca Mountain already has billions of taxpayer dollars invested in it. And, like MOX, the Obama administration zeroed out Yucca Mountain for political reasons.

Without the deep-geologic repository in Nevada, the nation’s high-level nuclear waste – including waste stored at SRS – will remain in dangerous limbo, scattered across the country.

The Energy and Water bill also contains a provision that seeks to end further delays to the deepening of the Port of Savannah’s busy shipping channel, a long-awaited, $706 million project for which Georgia already has ponied up its 40 percent share of $266 million.

The bill contains a clause added by U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee, that allocates $1.5 million to the Army Corps of Engineers to finalize an agreement to start construction using mostly state money. If it fails to do so by Oct. 1, the Corps would have to make weekly progress reports to Congress on the project. The clause is prudently crafted to keep the Obama administration accountable.

As we stated earlier, this bill is not perfect. It’s only $50 million below the amount appropriated in fiscal year 2014. A little more fiscal conservatism out of a Republican-controlled House would have been appreciated.

But this bill absolutely should become law. The funding for MOX diversifies the SRS mission; Yucca Mountain means safer nuclear waste storage; and a deepened Savannah harbor would boost its importance as an international industrial seaport.

It’s an important triple benefit for Georgia and South Carolina.