Officials in the United States and Russia soon might have to negotiate over a hot-button energy issue -- and it's not related to natural gas.
At issue is a Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, project in Aiken, S.C., that is supposed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel. The Energy Department has mothballed the project, citing cost overruns that put the total bill at $30 billion by the time it is constructed in 2019, and is exploring other options.
"This is a very important dialogue that we need to have with the Congress because, frankly, the issue is, is $30 billion lifetime something that can be supported?" Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Wednesday at a House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee hearing.
But the project is the linchpin of the U.S. side of a 2010 agreement between the two countries to each dispose of 34 metric tons of the plutonium. Russia would have to agree to any alternative.
That has led Republicans in the House and the Senate to question Moniz about the Energy Department's next course of action. In separate House hearings this week, they told Moniz they are worried that shuttering MOX entirely would allow Russia to back out of the plutonium disposal deal.
Moniz said that he has been in touch with Sergei Kirienko, who runs Russia's state-owned nuclear energy firm Rosatom, about the cost difficulties MOX presented. But Russia's annexation of Crimea ground those conversations to a halt.
"We had started discussions with Mr. Kirienko last year as we began to get concerned over the costs, and let's face it, for obvious reasons, now is a difficult time to have consultations" about alternatives, Moniz told reporters Thursday after a House Energy and Commerce Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing.
Moniz wouldn't confirm or deny that Russia would be allowed to back out of the disposal agreement if MOX is shut down for good and Russia doesn't agree to a U.S. alternative.
"We'll have to worry about that then, but I hope that we can reach agreement on whatever our pathways are," Moniz said, noting the U.S. hasn't decided to ax the project. "I might add that Mr. Kirienko was also sensitive to the fact that it turns out this is an expensive proposition — and not only for us."
Moniz said various factors made the project more expensive than originally estimated.
Modeled after a similar design in France, Moniz told the House Appropriations subcommittee that it was costlier to replicate than expected. On top of that, unanticipated complications with U.S. nuclear safety regulations and poor management in the project's early stages increased the tab.
The Palmetto State's congressional Republicans say the 13 metric tons of plutonium currently sitting at the MOX facility at the Savannah River Site present a security risk, and that closing it would eliminate jobs.
"I would urge DOE to use the funds for construction of the facility as originally appropriated by Congress," Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said Thursday.