BY THAD MOORE [email protected]

About this series

This article is the second part in “Lethal Legacy,” The Post and Courier’s investigation into the nation’s plans for disposing of plutonium, the dangerous metal that triggers nuclear weapons. This installment probes the Department of Energy’s failed MOX project, an ambitious but doomed effort to clean up the legacy of the Cold War.

Part I: Why South Carolina is likely stuck with a stockpile of the nation’s most dangerous nuclear materials 

Dogged by faulty assumptions and lacking political will, the federal government squandered billions of dollars and an opportunity to dispose of the nation’s most dangerous nuclear material by chasing a massive construction project in South Carolina that was doomed from the start.

The MOX saga reveals an unsettling reality of the nuclear era after the Cold War. The U.S. and the world’s other nuclear powers have proven they are capable of pulling the explosive potential out of atoms, but they have proven unable to dispose of a creation that will retain immense power and be a danger for eternity.

What is MOX? MOX, short for mixed-oxide, is a type of fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. It gets its name from the combination of two oxidized nuclear metals: plutonium and uranium.The U.S. government and Russia agreed to make MOX fuel with highly enriched plutonium, which they made for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The idea was to make the plutonium less potent and generate electricity by reacting it in power plants; the project’s supporters described it as a way for the countries to turn their “swords into plowshares.”

Instead, the U.S. Department of Energy stranded a huge stockpile of plutonium — the lethal metal at the core of nuclear weapons — at a federal installation on the state’s wooded western edge, with plans to leave it there for decades.

The roadblocks weren’t science or technology. They were politics and poor planning.

It did so over the objection of South Carolina’s political representatives, who prolonged the demise of the plutonium processing project for years and called for Congress to keep pouring money into a program that was careening toward disaster.

This account of the project’s demise is based on more than 10,000 pages of audits, congressional testimony, federal budget documents, internal project records and lawsuits. The Post and Courier also interviewed key Energy Department officials, politicians, watchdogs and people who worked on the massive construction effort.

The newspaper’s reporting found that evidence mounted for years that the project, known as MOX, would cost billions of dollars more than initially thought and take far longer to finish. And it found that Congress and federal officials failed again and again to make a decision about its future, which was caught between spiraling cost estimates and the unified force of South Carolina politicians who saw it as a critical jobs engine.

Each year of indecision cost hundreds of millions of dollars, left in limbo enough nuclear material to build thousands of bombs and delayed the disposal of the most dangerous metal mankind has ever created, one that will take a quarter-million years to decay. Even today, almost a year after construction workers were sent home, the stockpile’s future is uncertain, sitting in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.


Chapter 1: A rushed beginning


The MOX project traces its roots to the turn of the century, when the U.S. and Russia signed an ambitious agreement to clean up the legacy of the Cold War.

Both countries had produced massive amounts of plutonium as tensions escalated between them, and now they had agreed to part with some of their stockpiles for good. They planned to get rid of them largely by building mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel factories that would mix plutonium with other nuclear material to make the pellets that power nuclear reactors.

The federal government decided it would build its MOX plant in South Carolina at the Savannah River Site, a swath of federal land the size of a small county between Aiken and Allendale. The state’s leaders had lobbied for the role because the Savannah River Site needed a new mission to pursue.

The site was created to make material for nuclear weapons in the Cold War, and with its decades-long showdown with the USSR behind it, the U.S. didn’t want to keep hoarding bombs. The site might slowly shut down, and if it did, the local economy would bleed out.

Getting the MOX project came with a trade-off: The site would have to play host to tons of plutonium that was left over from making weapons and conducting nuclear experiments. It came in from California and Colorado, Washington state and New Mexico. South Carolina insisted on a promise that it wouldn’t stay for long.

Sources of Plutonium graphic

But after the plutonium arrived, the U.S.’s deal with Russia got off to a rocky start. Russia dragged its feet for years, and MOX’s supporters got restless. South Carolina had received the plutonium but few jobs, and they wanted the Department of Energy to get started.

So when the logjam with Russia finally broke, the Energy Department was eager to begin. It had plenty of reason to press forward: to keep Russia on track, calm MOX’s supporters in Congress and help secure a spot for the project in the federal budget.

The agency and its contractor, a company called MOX Services, rushed to put out their first official estimates for the project. They told Congress that MOX would cost a little under $5 billion, and it would be ready by 2016.

Underneath the surface, those estimates were deeply flawed because the facility’s complicated design was nowhere near ready — somewhere between about one-quarter and two-fifths complete.

A half-baked design meant that the estimates were little more than a ballpark guess. MOX Services would later accuse the government of ordering it to “estimate first and design later.” The government countered that the contractor was still responsible for the promises it made, regardless of the circumstances. Their fight is only now nearing a settlement.

It would take years for the full extent of the problem to set in, for budget writers and lawmakers to realize that the U.S. government’s policy had been no better than “throwing darts in the night and hoping you hit a bull’s-eye,” as U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-New Jersey, put it.

But on the MOX project, it was soon clear that the problem was enormous.

Unfinished design

The flaw that would doom MOX revealed itself to Terry Mullins in a stack of paperwork that wouldn’t stop growing.

Mullins was far away from South Carolina, in a factory outside Knoxville, Tenn., a mile uphill from a spindly lake in an Appalachian river valley. His family business occupied only a small corner of the project. But what he was seeing foretold trouble for one of the biggest construction projects the Department of Energy had ever undertaken.

There were design changes, dozens of them.

MOX was a behemoth project with a mission that was at once dangerous and technically complicated. It was supposed to handle enough plutonium to build thousands of bombs the size of the one dropped over Nagasaki, Japan. Even the smallest fleck of plutonium is thought to cause cancer if it’s inhaled — an amount so small it’s measured in millionths of a gram.

The plan was to combine the plutonium with uranium, another dangerous metal, and press the mixture into pellets of fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, tens of thousands of them every day. The plutonium and uranium would come in as a fine powder. To keep it from getting out, the MOX plant would have to do its work in airtight chambers that look like something from a doomsday movie. Workers can only reach in through gloves attached to the sides, which is how the chambers get their name: gloveboxes.

The plant would need hundreds of them. Mullins’ company was hired in 2010 to make three gloveboxes, plus another sealed chamber.

Employees at the Savannah River Site use a glovebox to handle plutonium at the site’s K Area storage facility, where the material is expected to remain for decades. Workers reach in through gloves built into the sides to limit their exposure to plutonium, a tiny amount of which is thought to cause cancer if inhaled. File/Provided
Employees at the Savannah River Site use a glovebox to handle plutonium at the site’s K Area storage facility, where the material is expected to remain for decades. Workers reach in through gloves built into the sides to limit their exposure to plutonium, a tiny amount of which is thought to cause cancer if inhaled. File/Provided

It was supposed to be a straightforward job for a company that was used to designing and building complicated equipment for the government: His company wouldn’t even have to design the chambers. It would just get the finished drawings and build them.

But the designs were not ready. Within two weeks of getting the job, more than 140 design changes came in, Mullins’ company alleged in court. By the end of 2011, it had gotten more than 1,000 in all. Just paying his staff to sort through them cost almost $2 million in wages, Mullins said.

At the same time, another company across the country said it was getting drawings that didn’t show where pieces should be welded together or even what size pieces to use. Some drawings came with instructions that conflicted with each other. Gloveboxes throughout the project ended up taking months longer to make than they should have, and they cost more than expected, adding millions of dollars apiece, an impact multiplied hundreds of times over.

A top official in the company hired to build the MOX plant would later admit to Mullins’ lawyers that the gloveboxes were “inadequately designed.” Everyone in the company’s top ranks knew about the problem, he said under oath.

The issues emerging in places like Tennessee by 2010 were an alarming signal for a project that would ultimately spiral billions of dollars over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. While the MOX plant’s massive, 10-foot concrete walls rose, the equipment inside threatened the entire endeavor. Government auditors would later find that pieces like gloveboxes were one of the main reasons MOX was teetering on the edge of disaster.

The problems in Mullins’ factory were a harbinger of the problems that would doom the entire project: Gloveboxes were the protective layer that would make the MOX undertaking safe. They were designed around the machines that would handle America’s most sensitive nuclear material. The building was designed around the gloveboxes.

So if the gloveboxes’ designs weren’t ready, nothing was ready.

If they were in trouble, the entire project was.

Gloveboxes like these units inside the MOX plant were a key piece of the project, as the protective layer that separated workers from dangerous nuclear material like plutonium. The facility called for hundreds of the sealed chambers, but suppliers say they were sent unfinished designs that caused long delays and expensive cost overruns, a harbinger of the project’s demise. File/Provided

Collision course

MOX Services had seen Mullins’ problems before.

It needed to order lots of custom-made equipment, but it wanted to do a few test runs first. Before it bought hundreds of gloveboxes, it decided to order two of the simplest ones and see how they turned out.

The work went out shortly after the project broke ground at the end of 2007. Design changes poured in. The gloveboxes went far over budget, and they took nearly an extra year to finish.

The test run predicted the problems Mullins encountered before his company was hired for the job, and MOX Services would later describe the results as “profound and bracing.”

The tests quickly revealed that the project’s entire budget was unrealistic, but MOX Services had these revelations only after it had given the government its first estimates earlier in 2007.

The government and MOX Services blamed each other for the problems they uncovered: The contractor said it hadn’t been allowed to run the tests earlier because of the U.S.’s standoff with Russia. The government contends the company indicated it was “ready, willing and able to commit” to the original estimates all the same.

It would matter little who was at fault for the bad estimates. Both sides were locked in, and billions of taxpayer dollars were pouring into a project built on flawed assumptions. MOX was on a collision course with reality.

It set in again and again, with problems that beset almost every component of the facility.

It was apparent in the air vents: A company making ductwork for the building’s HVAC system realized in 2011 its workers were spending three hours dealing with design changes for every hour they spent making ducts, according to a report obtained by the watchdog group SRS Watch. They handled nearly 8,000 changes between 2009 and 2016, the cost of their work more than doubled, and they took an extra 3½ years to finish, even though the final design ended up calling for fewer air ducts.

It was apparent in the wiring: MOX Services realized in 2012 that its first estimates called for half as much electrical cable as the project would actually need. The extra cable measured 660 miles; unspooled from the MOX plant in South Carolina, it would reach within eyeshot of the Statue of Liberty.

The revelations throughout the building led the head of the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons arm to tell Congress in 2014 that his agency had made a “serious mistake” by pushing forward without a finished design. Lawmakers would order the department to forge ahead for years, led by staunch defenders from South Carolina who were mindful of the plutonium stockpile back home and the economic impact of losing a big project and more than 1,000 construction jobs.

Problems with MOX and other major projects were so profound that the weapons agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, made an official policy blocking itself from starting another big nuclear project until it has a design that was all but finished.

It set that rule years before the MOX project met its demise, but it was already too late for MOX. The NNSA told The Post and Courier that when it started construction on MOX, the facility’s design “was unquestionably less than our current standard.”

It was only the first time a bad assumption would weigh on the project.


Chapter 2: Faulty assumptions


Before the U.S. government decided to build a MOX plant in the 1990s, engineers and policy wonks considered all kinds of moonshot ideas for getting rid of plutonium, like blasting it into the center of the sun or drilling it into the Earth’s fiery center.

MOX looked straightforward by comparison. It was a technology that had been used before, and officials thought it would be relatively inexpensive. In the program’s early days, the NNSA assured Congress that it had a “high degree of confidence” that the project wouldn’t cost more than a few billion dollars because other countries had built MOX plants decades earlier.

What it didn’t account for was all the differences between what those countries had done and what the U.S. wanted.

Other countries like France and the U.K. built MOX plants to deal with plutonium from their nuclear power plants; the U.S. wanted one to handle the highly enriched metal used in weapons, a much more sensitive job.

Other countries had built their plants under more lenient rules; the U.S. now had strict regulations for building nuclear facilities. They were intended to prevent disaster, and difficult to meet.

The American MOX plan called for a process that was almost entirely automated to minimize workers’ exposure to plutonium. Machines would take over from when plutonium was loaded into the plant to when pellets of fuel came out the other end.

Even before construction began on the plant, outside consultants and government auditors criticized the Energy Department and MOX Services for failing to appreciate the challenges they faced. An internal department review later found that the Energy Department had neglected to study other MOX plants and have outsiders challenge its assumptions.

By the time its assumptions began to crumble, it was too late.

The government had already signed an agreement with Russia promising to use the technology and shipped tons of plutonium to South Carolina with a promise not to leave it there. It had even decided not to pay for a second processing plant built around a different technology.

It was stuck with MOX alone. At the time, it had assumed it wouldn’t need a backup plan.

The MOX project struggled to find workers who were qualified to meet the nuclear industry’s exacting standards, which include specific ways of welding pieces. The decay of the American nuclear industry after decades without a major construction project was one factor that increased the MOX project’s costs. File/Provided

‘Atrophied’ industry

There was one big question the U.S. failed to ask before it embarked on the MOX project: Was America still capable of building a big nuclear facility?

In the decades since other countries had built their plants, the nuclear industry in the U.S. had been crumbling, a revelation that came to Anne Harrington at so many meetings with MOX Services.

Throughout most of the Obama administration, Harrington was in charge of the Energy Department’s efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, a job that put her in charge of the nation’s most ambitious nonproliferation effort: MOX.

She started the job in 2010, a few years after construction began, and she met with the project’s contractors every few months, each time hearing again how the American nuclear industry was in disarray.

She’d hear about how Americans hadn’t even tried to build a commercial nuclear project in the better part of three decades — not since the near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.

She’d hear about how few workers and companies could meet the industry’s exacting standards and the U.S.’s extremely tight regulations — the way concrete had to be poured without air bubbles, the way parts had to be welded just so — with an inspector looking behind.

She’d hear about how the project needed to hire engineers to work on suppliers’ shop floors to make sure they were meeting standards, a conversation she said happened “way more than once.”

MOX Services and the government both had assumed that there would be plenty of companies to do the work they needed. Instead, MOX Services found that the nuclear industry had “atrophied,” and what was left of it was now in high demand.

Soon after the Energy Department started work on the MOX project, two groups of utilities in South Carolina and Georgia set out to build the nation’s first nuclear reactors in a generation, expanding the V.C. Summer power plant near Columbia and the Vogtle plant in Georgia. Both endeavors broke ground within 75 miles.

They all had to fight for workers with skills the government came to regard as “nearly nonexistent,” requiring lots of on-the-job training. MOX got a reputation as a nuclear training ground, a stepping stone for the industry’s newcomers. Some years, one worker in five would leave MOX for another job, forcing the project to pay for a new employee’s training.

“The decision-makers at the time naively thought that U.S. capacity was sufficient to handle this kind of large nuclear project,” Harrington said. “This program helped bring back lost skills, but it brought them back at a huge cost.”

With their newfound leverage, suppliers insisted that MOX Services and the government bear the risk of their work going over budget. MOX Services once approached 72 companies to see if they’d give a fixed price to pour concrete for the project. Only one made an offer, padding it with extra money to blunt the risk.

With lacking expertise and limited options, the project used low-quality parts that didn’t meet safety standards at least three times in the first year of construction, the department’s inspector general found. In one case, they allowed a company to pass off regular rebar as nuclear-grade, a hardened type meant to protect the building in a disaster.

The low-quality rebar was discovered in 2008, only after a worker swinging nothing more than a hammer managed to snap a bar that was supposed to withstand earthquakes and explosions. By then, MOX Services had already bought more than 3,000 tons of the bad rebar and entombed nearly 150 tons of it in concrete.

Workers tend to a section of the MOX facility at the Savannah River Site. The program employed more than 1,000 people in South Carolina when it was called off, but the government and the project’s lead contractor said they struggled with training and retaining workers in an industry that had shrunk significantly. File/Provided

Weak oversight

Auditors criticized the NNSA for years for its loose oversight of the MOX project, starting even before the facility broke ground.

They said the staff in charge of the project was “generally inexperienced” with managing complicated construction projects, that the agency waited years to set up a dedicated project management office for MOX, and that the department had understaffed its oversight efforts.

The hands-off approach was especially problematic because the government’s contract with MOX Services left it on the hook for the project’s mounting problems. It was written so that the government essentially covered any cost the project racked up, plus a fee for the contractor. Auditors found that the department had been warned about the risk when it signed the contract in 1999.

“We would not enter into a contract like this today,” the NNSA’s top project management official, Robert Raines, said in 2017.

It was an old story for the Department of Energy, which has a decades-long reputation for letting projects spin out of control, ending in their cancellation or massive overruns. It had encountered problems with efforts to restore nuclear weapons, clean up environmental messes and build factories and research facilities, among others.

Gregory Friedman, a retired former inspector general for the department, said MOX was a “prime example of grossly inefficient and ineffective use of scarce taxpayer-provided resources” brought on by a “perfect project management storm.”

In an email to The Post and Courier, he said the department was influenced by international pressures and local economic concerns, it failed to estimate costs well or control them, it didn’t keep in check changes to the project, and it didn’t keep close enough tabs on its contractor.

“These factors, to one degree or another, were part of the pattern of failed projects at a number of departmental sites that we examined when I was the inspector general,” Friedman said.

But this time, the NNSA was trying to improve the way it manages projects. Auditors would later observe that the NNSA’s decision to invest in project management would lead it to a conclusion that upset decades of work on plutonium disposal and nuclear nonproliferation.

The agency began to think that the MOX project’s problems ran too deep, that its challenges would be too expensive to overcome.

Money problems

The soaring cost of MOX then ran headlong into a federal budget crisis.

Revelations about the project’s challenges mounted at a moment when the Obama administration was deciding it wanted to modernize the nation’s nuclear complex and work on making its aging weapons last longer — a costly, long-term endeavor.

And the problems piled up as money was getting tight across the government. Congress had been gridlocked over spending, and lawmakers had let a series of deep budget cuts known as sequestration take effect. They squeezed every department’s budget like a vise.

The budget cuts forced the administration to pick its priorities, to weigh its plan to get rid of plutonium in South Carolina against its hope of investing more in nuclear weapons. Former department officials said in interviews that as they focused on cutting costs, their attention turned to MOX, one of the biggest costs they had.

“If money were not an issue, MOX would be a straightforward way to go. But, unfortunately, as you have indicated, it is an issue,” John MacWilliams, the department’s chief risk officer, told Congress in 2015.

The Department of Energy decided that the money shoveled into MOX would be better used elsewhere. Its leaders decided that they needed to kill MOX.

The question was, would they?


Chapter 3: A prolonged end


The MOX project had already cost some $4 billion when the Obama administration first tried to slow it down.

But before construction workers were actually sent home, at Congress’s urging, the government would funnel nearly $1.6 billion more into it.

For years, MOX existed in a political warp: The Department of Energy tried to convince Congress that it had done a bad job, that the project was beyond repair. South Carolina’s congressional delegation tried to convince their colleagues that it was better than the department was letting on.

It took years for the rest of Congress to take a side, at a moment when most national security leaders were focused on terrorism, emerging nuclear threats and cyberwarfare, not the legacy of building nuclear weapons for the Cold War.

In the meantime, lawmakers tried to split the difference. Budget writers put in enough money to keep the project alive, but not enough to get much work done. Congress spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year just to keep its options open.

It was a compromise that made no one particularly happy. MOX backers had a project stuck on life support, and opponents who wanted to spend money elsewhere couldn’t. Both sides watched as a project that had massive problems to begin with went into a death spiral.

Keeping the MOX project alive each year was hugely expensive, even before the first construction worker stepped on site. It required an army of accountants and engineers, quality checkers and designers. MOX Services once estimated that it needed $180 million a year just to keep its back office open. The Army Corps of Engineers’ assessment was even more dire: It estimated that the government was spending around $350 million a year for just $30 million worth of progress.

Unless something changed, the project would take an eternity to finish, if it finished at all. One especially dour study commissioned by the government found that if nothing changed, the project could continue into the next century. Every year the project was delayed by money shortages or mismanagement was another year of overhead and another year of materials getting more expensive.

“It was never adequately funded in terms of making progress,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the project’s top advocates, told The Post and Courier. “They always put enough money to keep it going, but not to get ahead of it.”

The government and MOX Services would come to disagree profoundly about the true costs of MOX, but there was no disagreement that an underfunded project would take much longer to finish and ultimately cost more. The most expensive option Congress had was to drag its feet, yet it did just that as the government and its contractor flooded decision-makers with conflicting information.

That realization was documented years before Congress would finally make up its mind. Study committees and consultants implored lawmakers to make a decision quickly and stick with it.

“Every year we go through this debate,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, said in a 2015 hearing. “We will punt. You are doing that, we are doing that, everybody is doing that.”

The U.S. needed to stick to a plan to get rid of plutonium, but it didn’t have the resolve. Congress kept punting for years.

Uneven support

Congress’s commitment to pay for the MOX project — and get plutonium out of South Carolina — was fractured from the beginning.

The first fight over its future happened before it had even broken ground.

It was 2006 and in a little-followed corner of the government’s budget-making process, a congressman named Dave Hobson took the first shot.

Hobson presided over a small group of representatives who waded into the weeds of the Energy Department’s work and decided how much money it would get. Hobson, an Ohio Republican, wanted MOX to die.

Hobson and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Peter Visclosky of Indiana, had several doubts about the project, which had been sold on a back-of-the-envelope estimate of $1 billion that had already multiplied to nearly $5 billion. They feared the project would get more expensive still, a prediction that came to pass.

Hobson urged his panel and the entire House of Representatives to cut funding for MOX. He sent the Energy Department’s budget to the House floor without a single dollar for MOX, and the House voted 404-20 to approve it.

Hobson’s push revealed two key forces that would later steer the course of the MOX project’s demise. One was that Congress was not deeply wedded to MOX, a profound problem for a project that would only get money one year at a time.

The other was that MOX wouldn’t go down without a fight.

The politics around plutonium were fraught in South Carolina. Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, had threatened to lie down in the highway to keep it from coming here because there wasn’t a backup plan to MOX. He ordered state troopers in 2002 to patrol for nuclear shipments, and he didn’t back off until a federal judge made him.

So when Hobson’s plan to kill MOX passed the House, South Carolina’s political representatives spun into action. The state’s delegation vowed to put money back into the budget in the Senate, and they called on their counterparts in Georgia to help. They succeeded. And when it came time for the House and the Senate to hash out their differences, Hobson backed down.

South Carolina state transportation police and state troopers prepared to patrol for shipments of plutonium along a highway near the Savannah River Site in June 2002. Gov. Jim Hodges issued an executive order blocking plutonium shipments from South Carolina’s roads during a standoff with the Department of Energy. File/AP

In an interview, he said he was doing a favor for his party: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was up for reelection in the fall of 2006, and stirring up the plutonium issue was bad politics. Hobson let funding for MOX stay in.

The project would break ground the next year, and Hobson, who retired in 2009, would regard it as his biggest regret in office. Once it was in motion, MOX had too much inertia to stop.

“I made a mistake,” he said in an interview this year. “I should not have been a nice guy and let this go.”

Political muscle

The MOX project has long highlighted South Carolina’s outsize political influence.

The project’s history featured Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Democrat who became one of the House’s top leaders the year after Hobson dropped his fight in the House. Soon after he ascended, he got special permission to sit in on a budget hearing so he could ask the Energy secretary to commit to the project on the record.

It featured Rep. John Spratt Jr., the state’s other Democrat at the time, a long-serving member with a prominent role in the federal budget and defense spending. Spratt urged the department to make a “strong, emphatic case” for the project after Hobson’s fight, or else face “a year-to-year wrangle over whether it is worth doing.”

It even featured Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Republican who was almost a half-century into his Senate career when he marshaled support for the project, writing letters to the White House, the House Speaker and the Senate minority leader asking for their support. He also wrote to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who chaired a panel of Senate investigators, to ask why she was talking to auditors in 2001 about the project, saying he was surprised about her interest in a program “located in South Carolina and not far from my place of residence.”

In those early days, the future of the Savannah River Site was in flux. After decades of work producing material for nuclear weapons in the Cold War, the site needed new jobs to do, or else it would have little more to do than clean up its toxic mess and slowly shut down.

Thurmond told Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser, that building MOX would be like commissioning a new aircraft carrier in the number of people it would employ — “the key to our future,” he called it in 2001.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (right), R-S.C., speaks with a Russian diplomat during a ceremony marking the future MOX plant at the Savannah River Site. The facility in South Carolina was supposed to handle 34 metric tons of plutonium under the terms of a 2000 deal between the U.S. and Russia. File/Ron Cockerille/The Chronicle/AP

Rejecting alternatives

The Energy Department first asked in 2013 to slow construction of MOX and look at other options. Its proposal set off years of fighting with South Carolina’s congressional delegation.

The delegation’s top advocates for MOX, Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson, immediately rejected the idea of considering alternatives. The mere suggestion of a review spelled trouble, even as officials like Harrington, the NNSA deputy administrator, told senators that pressing forward with MOX was still “clearly on the table” as an option.

“I don’t mean to be rude. You’re a very smart lady,” Graham retorted in a hearing soon after the department proposed the review. “It’s not ‘on the table.’ It’s the pathway forward. It’s not subject to debate.”

He said later in the same hearing, “When it comes to studying another way to do it, count me out.”

Around the same time, Graham blocked President Barack Obama from installing a new Energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, because of the proposed construction slowdown. Graham held up Moniz’s confirmation for a few weeks before letting him take office, warning that he would “make life incredibly miserable if we cannot find an accommodation that I think is fair.”

The next year, Moniz’s department would ask to kill MOX outright.

Graham and Wilson were well-positioned to fight back. Wilson was one of the most senior Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, which controls defense spending. Graham sat on committees that decided both how much money should go toward nuclear programs and how it should be spent, an uncommonly powerful position.

Wilson said in a statement that he advocated for MOX to prevent South Carolina “from becoming a permanent dump for weapons-grade plutonium, which had been moved to the site prior to my election to Congress.” It was also counterproductive, he said, to walk away “with so much time and money invested.”

Graham’s office did not respond to detailed questions about his role in the project after briefly discussing the project in a meeting with The Post and Courier’s editorial board.

Four times the Energy Department asked for MOX to end. Again and again, at the urging of South Carolina’s delegation, Congress said no. Members of both parties were becoming leery of the project and the yearly fight over its future, but for now, South Carolina’s concerns carried the day.

”If they hadn’t been fighting as hard as they did, it wouldn’t have stayed as long as it did,” said former Rep. Buck McKeon, who was hired to lobby for the project after retiring as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were really swimming upstream.”

Congress would put up more than $300 million each year to keep it going, the cost of lawmakers’ collective indecision.

It was enough to keep the project alive, but the constant fight to survive took a toll: Back in Aiken, the project was breaking down.

‘Intense uncertainty’

The project was underfunded, and its future was up for debate every year, a combination that made an inefficient project even less economical.

It faced what an Energy Department study group called an “environment of intense uncertainty,” managed by an agency that attacked it each year in its budget requests and sustained it only because lawmakers forced it to.

Construction workers, who had been difficult to find in the first place, became concerned about their job security, and more decided to quit. Morale among those who stayed behind got worse. More money went into training new workers, and the site’s reputation as a stepping stone into the nuclear industry deepened.

Deciding what tasks those workers should be doing — a herculean job in good times — became a maddening puzzle. With low funding, money had to factor into the timing of each step in the building’s progress, especially expensive jobs that needed to be done in one shot. Workers couldn’t simply pour concrete until money ran out and come back when the coffers were full. In an industry where a cement wall couldn’t have so much as an air bubble, they had to finish what they started.

Funding hangups were thought to add as much as 45 percent to the project’s overall cost, according to one conservative government estimate.

And with the project on life support, the Energy Department and its contractor found themselves forced to work together while they fought each other doggedly over whether MOX was worth doing.

Disputed numbers

The government and MOX Services agreed the project had problems, but they couldn’t agree on how bad things were.

Their fights were fundamental. They couldn’t agree on what the project would actually cost to finish, which meant they couldn’t agree on how far along it was. MOX Services insisted that it was well on its way to the finish line; the government, which produced increasingly gloomy cost estimates, said it was nowhere close.

The contractor’s parent companies, Chicago Bridge & Iron and Areva, both already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to keep a presence on Capitol Hill. But as the fight intensified, they hired an army of lobbyists to sell Congress on a rosier picture.

After the Obama administration called for a reevaluation of MOX, the companies spent at least $2.9 million on lobbyists who were hired only to advocate for the project. Over the same period, the companies spent $12.7 million on their efforts to influence policy.

The companies declined to comment for this article.

Their argument was that it would be wasteful to walk away from a project when the government had already sunk so much into it. One lobbyist who focused on MOX, Linda Ann Lingle, said the companies didn’t think Congress would want to walk away from a project that was halfway done. But researchers found that it was using a crude measure of how much work had been done: how much money had been spent. For one thing, it was distorted by how much had been spent early on to buy parts and materials.

The NNSA scolded MOX Services for its lobbying efforts, saying it was giving out “misleading and inaccurate” information. When the contractor told Congress the project was getting close to completion, the government believed its stats were “patently false.”

MOX Services, in turn, sought to assemble evidence that the government was making cost estimates with assumptions designed to make its prospects look as bleak as possible. Both sides commissioned reports on the project and its problems, and each made note of the toxic relationship, alternately calling it “antagonistic” and “dysfunctional.”

The lobbyists found willing partners in South Carolina representatives like Clyburn, Graham and Wilson, who regularly cited the contractor’s numbers and took issue with the government’s.

Wilson, whose district includes the Savannah River Site, and Graham, who represented the area as a House member, urged their colleagues to look at the expanse of steel and concrete that had gone up in South Carolina and trust their eyes. The Energy Department contended that the project’s remaining work — putting in the building’s guts — would be more difficult, even if it was less visible.

But after watching “a forest of rebar … come to life,” Wilson said he’d concluded that the best way to judge the project’s progress was seeing it firsthand. He hosted a group of House members for a site visit in 2016.

Wilson told The Post and Courier that the Energy Department and its figures had been “consistently unreliable,” so he visited the site to see for himself: “With my own eyes, I could see the percentage of completion was much higher than DOE estimated,” he said.

SRS MOX Jan 31 2018 IMG_4066-crop.jpg
The shell of the MOX plant had already risen when the Trump administration killed the project in 2018. Members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation pushed their colleagues in Washington, D.C., to trust their eyes over the Energy Department’s estimates in gauging the building’s progress. The department contended that difficult and less visible work remained inside. File/High Flyer/Provided

The difference in outlook was clear a few months later, when Graham told the head of the NNSA, Frank Klotz, that the project was 70 percent complete. Klotz told him he didn’t agree.

“Well, you can come look at the damn thing,” Graham responded.

“I have,” Klotz said.

“OK,” Graham said. “Is it big?”

“It is big,” Klotz answered.

“Well, it cost $5 billion, I can promise you that,” Graham responded. “And I think it’s 70 percent.”

A year later, the Army Corps of Engineers would disagree: It said the project still wasn’t halfway done.

Unwinding work

For all the disagreement between the two sides, the reports they commissioned actually agreed on some key points.

Both agreed, for instance, that MOX would cost far more than expected and would ultimately measure its price tag in tens of billions of dollars. MOX Services’ case was that it was worth the cost to avoid using a technology the Russians had not approved.

“The cost overruns have been real. The delays have been real. Part of it is due to bad management; there’s some part of that. Part of it’s just the way you fund,” Graham told The Post and Courier’s editorial board in August. “We went to the moon. I mean, you can do things that you really want to do, and you need to do. We’ve built big things before.”

But Congress slowly began to decide that MOX would not be one of them, and bipartisan pushback mounted. A project that had long highlighted South Carolina’s influence in Washington began to test its limits.

In the project’s later years, Congress began including caveats with its funding for the project, like studying other options for getting rid of plutonium. Eventually, lawmakers said the Energy Department could kill the project if it could find a different way that would cost less than half what MOX would.

The department said it could meet that requirement and save tens of billions of dollars by encasing plutonium in a secret substance called “stardust” and burying it in the desert.

MOX was on its last legs.

Resistance to the project did not follow party lines. Observers remark that it was a rare point of consensus between presidents Obama and Donald Trump; the Department of Energy continued its push to cancel MOX after Trump took office, though MOX supporters blame holdover staffers for giving the new administration their spin.

“That’s one that I would say did not change with the new administration, that people refer to as the deep state,” said Gov. Henry McMaster, who was an early Trump supporter in the Republican primary.

A group of South Carolina leaders, including the governor, Graham and Wilson, traveled to the White House to make their case directly to the president.

They did not succeed. MOX was called off last year, after the government spent $5.4 billion just building the unfinished plant in South Carolina. Including work to prepare the plutonium and study MOX fuel, the tab was roughly $8 billion.

Construction crews in 2007 were just beginning work on the MOX project at the Savannah River Site, where the U.S. government had planned to process a huge stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium for disposal. Work on the plant was called off just over a decade later. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Ongoing fight

As the project’s options narrowed, the fight moved to the state capital.

As the Energy Department sought to kill MOX, the state threatened to sue almost every year, and it often followed through.

By the time the contractor said it had finished the plant’s design in 2016, South Carolina had already sued the federal government twice over the project.

The legal effort prolonged the project briefly. A federal judge last year forced construction to go forward, even after Congress had agreed to kill it. The project continued for a few months before an appeals court let the federal government end it. South Carolina has appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide next month if it will hear the case.

The state’s lawyers have argued that MOX’s demise threatens to make South Carolina a long-term resting place for America’s leftover plutonium. They told the Supreme Court that they had “no reason to believe that this material is going anywhere anytime soon.” The state is home to about 12 metric tons of plutonium the U.S. has decided it doesn’t need — enough to build more than 1,000 nuclear bombs.

But South Carolina was destined to house the nation’s nuclear excess for decades no matter what, the government told the high court this month. The project had deep problems and shallow funding, and it wasn’t going to be done until the middle of the century.

The idea that South Carolina could soon be rid of the nation’s plutonium died long before MOX did.

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