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THE HILL

Radioactive pork

April 19, 2016, 10:46 am

By Former Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio)

In the coming days, Congress has an opportunity to begin unraveling a billion dollar boondoggle that’s been fleecing American taxpayers for more than a decade.

But don’t hold your breath. This is a textbook case of politics trumping policy.

In South Carolina, there’s an outrageously expensive, partially-completed building called the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX). It is one of the biggest and baddest earmarks of all time. It’s a staggering one-thousand percent over budget, years behind schedule, and nobody knows what use it will be when (if) it’s ever completed.

To its credit, the White House has proposed a plan to cancel MOX and begin funding an alternative that is faster and cheaper. But pork-minded legislators on both sides of the aisle are pushing back, trying to get as much as $340 million appropriated for the facility in this year’s energy bill.
To understand what this fight is all about, let’s take a step back.

This is a tragic tale that began with good intentions. In 2000, the US and Russia signed an agreement to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium. The US decided to build a facility to convert the weapons-grade material into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The MOX plant was expected to be completed within three years and cost $1.6 billion.

Today, it remains unfinished and the Department of Energy has sunk a staggering $5 billion into construction alone. Estimates for finishing the job range between a ridiculous $25 billion and an absurd $110 billion. Perhaps the most mind-boggling thing of all is that the MOX facility lacks even a single customer for its commercial reactor fuel if and when it ever comes online.

My biggest regret from my time in Congress is not finding a way to thwart this project 13 years ago.

As a fiscally conservative Republican and former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, as well as a former member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I felt it was my duty to spend taxpayer dollars on projects that truly address our most critical national security needs. I supported critical nuclear weapons and nuclear nonproliferation work at the Department of Energy, but I also supported critical non-nuclear national security projects like the original Predator drone and improved body and vehicle armor for our troops.

But when I raised concerns about MOX during hearings a dozen years ago and tried to stop the project, I was met with resistance by the Energy Department, the Bush White House, and many of my fellow Republicans. They told me canceling the project would hurt then-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s chances of being reelected, and would damage our relations with Russia.

Senator Lindsey Graham has pinned his support of the facility on the latter point, claiming that our bilateral relationship with Russia demands the completion of the MOX facility. But this is simply not true.

The Department of Energy has identified several alternative strategies to dispose of the plutonium that would meet the treaty’s obligations and have been independently verified to be more cost effective, timely, and safer.

The latest nail in the project’s coffin should be the serious safety and security problems of the MOX facility, as documented by nonpartisan watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

They discovered that the MOX project contractor was granted an exemption from an important security standard before construction even began. Facilities that handle special nuclear materials such as plutonium, or converted MOX fuel, must be able to verify the location of all special nuclear materials within 72 hours in order to verify or disprove any claims that such materials have been lost or stolen. Instead of 72 hours, the MOX contractor estimates it could take an astounding 180 days to physically verify the presence of all special nuclear materials — 60 times the normal DOE security requirement. If my party wants to keep control of Congress, Republicans of all stripes, but most especially those self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives, must demonstrate that they are responsible stewards of the taxpayer dollars. One of the most critical jobs of Congress is to make rational decisions on how to best allocate limited fiscal resources every year. Funding national security is one of our most serious legislative responsibilities, but the mere attachment of the label “national security” to a project does not mean that Republicans are required to suspend all critical thinking and immediately move that project to the head of the line for limited national security funding.

Funding a poorly-conceived, poorly-performing, and ultimately pointless project such as MOX — remember, there are no utility customers willing to accept the fuel — will take needed funds away from our Armed Forces and from more worthy national nuclear security projects in the Department of Energy. It is long past time to cancel the MOX project and put sound policy ahead of pork-barrel politics.

Hobson is former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee


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