Obama budget slashes MOX nuclear fuel funding

President Barack Obama

The Obama administration’s FY 2014 budget put forward this week cuts funding for a key plutonium reprocessing facility in South Carolina, leading senators and industry to disparage the proposal, the Associated Press reports.

The president’s budget request included $503 million, or $183 million less than was provided under last year’s continuing resolution, when Congress failed to pass a budget.

The MOX (mixed oxide fuel) facility transforms weapons-grade plutonium into usable commercial nuclear reactor fuel and is a central component of the United States’ international non-proliferation efforts. The U.S. and Russia have each committed to convert 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium—enough for about 17,000 warheads, the AP reports—into fuel for peaceful commercial reactors. The administration’s budget request questioned the viability of the MOX plant as a disarmament tool, saying, “This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable…due to cost growth and fiscal pressure.”

Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, where the MOX plant is located, has come out swinging in support of the facility. During confirmation hearings for energy secretary nominee Dr. Ernest Moniz, held just before the budget was released amid rumors that it would cut the MOX program, Scott grilled Moniz on his plans for plutonium reprocessing.

“There are two options. One of them is the MOX facility,” Scott reportedly said in the Aiken Standard, “so my question really is, do you think we should continue on the work we have invested $4 billion in, at 60 percent completion in, to honor our agreement?” Moniz was reportedly non-committal, saying only that “we need to honor our agreement with Russia in mutual disposition of plutonium.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the primary interest group representing the nuclear industry in Washington, panned the administration’s proposal for the MOX facility as well as the budget’s cutbacks in other sectors affecting the industry. The NEI said in a statement, “To reduce funding for completing the project at this time will validate again those critics of the government, and DOE in particular, who claim it simply cannot complete complex projects; particularly those concerning nuclear materials.”

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