Senate Appropriations Hearing on NNSA Focuses on MOX Facility

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Publication date: 
22 May 2014

The Obama Administration’s request to pause FY 2015 construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility was the focus of a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.  None of the powerful senators at this hearing were pleased with this strategy that was in the FY 2015 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nonproliferation program.

“That’s unacceptable to me” Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said about the Administration’s request to reduce the budget for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation programs by $398.8 million or 20.4 percent.    The request reflects NNSA’s decision to put the MOX facility “in cold stand-by while the Department evaluates plutonium disposition options.”  Budgetary problems are behind this request.  The MOX facility would eliminate 16,000 plutonium pits (approximately 34 metric tons) by converting them into fuel for nuclear power plants.  The facility is being built at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.  In 2002 the Department of Energy estimated it would cost $3.8 billion to carry out this program that would last 20 years.  The latest cost estimate is in the range of $30+ billion.  In the last ten years Congress has appropriated approximately $4 billion for the project. 

NNSA’s request to pause construction of the MOX facility drew harsh criticism from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (R).  “Why you all shouldn’t be fired?” he said to the panel of senior NNSA officials who testified at the April 30 hearing.  He cited agreements made with the Russian Federation and the State of Georgia to use MOX technology to dispose of the weapons grade plutonium.  “It is an affront to the people of South Carolina” Graham said.  “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you” he told Feinstein.  Under the agreement Graham helped to implement with South Carolina, the federal government will $100 million a year for five years if a ton of plutonium is not processed through the MOX facility or moved out of South Carolina by 2016.  “I don’t want the $100 million.  I want the MOX program to go forward because there is no viable alternative” he said. 

The MOX facility was just one of a number of facilities cited by Feinstein and the subcommittee’s Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) as having governance and project management problems.  Feinstein told Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, USAF (Ret), who became the administrator of NNSA in early April, that “the nonproliferation program has become the payer for the nuclear weapons program.”  Weapons Activities funding would increase 6.9 percent under the FY 2015 request.  Feinstein charged the request was “inconsistent with the administration’s stated priorities.” 

A high level study was recently completed examining five candidate options for the disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium.  Twelve to eighteen months will be needed to refine the analysis and perform better cost analysis.  “The administration remains firmly committed to disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium” Klotz assured the subcommittee.

Weapons modernization programs were also discussed.  Of note, Feinstein spoke of a “good discussion” she had at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory about the National Ignition Facility. Feinstein asked Donald Cook, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, if he agreed that within two years “NNSA will be able to assess whether ignition on NIF is possible.”  “That is our plan” Cook replied, adding “there is a belief that we’ve got the right team, the right leadership, and the program is now driving forward on a scientific basis.”

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.