South Carolina’s Nuclear-Infused Pork

The federal government is spending billions on a one-of-a-kind energy project that it no longer wants. 

Construction of the Savannah River Site nuclear power plant in 2007.
Construction of the Savannah River Site nuclear power plant in 2007.

Photo courtesy Shaw AREVA MOX Services

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Near the center of the Savannah River Site, the federal government’s sprawling, 300-square-mile nuclear weapons complex tucked away in a corner of South Carolina, sits an unfinished concrete building. When the government first inked a deal in 1999 to build the so-called MOX facility—a one-of-a-kind plant designed to turn bomb-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel—contractors estimated construction would cost $1.7 billion. Fifteen years later, lawmakers have already sunk more than twice that into the project, and will need to spend at least another $4 billion to finish the job. All told, the government now expects it would cost more than $30 billion to build and operate the plant during its 20-year lifespan—despite mounting concerns the project will fail.

So great are the Energy Department’s concerns about the ballooning costs and countless delays that the agency wants to halt construction of the MOX facility—probably permanently. But the state of South Carolina won’t let the federal spigot turn off. Under threat of a lawsuit from Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, the Obama administration backed away from a temporary shutdown at the end of April. Taxpayer-funded construction is continuing full-speed ahead this summer.

Welcome to the world of nuclear-infused pork.

The Energy Department’s inspector general detailed the project’s bloat in a damning audit released last month, which found that construction is already running at least three years behind schedule and at least $3 billion over its most recently inflated budget. Even worse, the report makes it clear that those setbacks were evident before crews broke ground. Prior to green-lighting the project, the department’s own independent review found that the design for the facility was so incomplete that it failed to meet established department guidelines necessary for approval. Construction, somehow, began anyway.

The federal government is spending $442 million on the project this fiscal year alone, roughly $80 million more than the Energy Department requested. A defense authorization bill currently winding its way through the Senate, meanwhile, calls for $341 million in MOX funding for the upcoming year, $145 million more than President Obama wants. The South Carolina nuclear facility is one of the most expensive non-military projects that the government is building—that almost no one in the government wants.

The project is part of an ongoing effort to clean up the radioactive waste of the Cold War. Under a non-proliferation deal brokered with Russia back in 2000, both countries agreed to build MOX plants to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by blending it with uranium to create a fuel that scientists believe can safely be burned in commercial nuclear power reactors.

In theory, the non-proliferation agreement was a clever one. It aimed to reduce the global stockpile of Cold War nukes and generate low-carbon power in the process. In practice, it has been plagued by ballooning costs, shifting deadlines, and serious doubts whether Moscow will hold up its end of the deal. Things have gotten so bad that President Obama and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz—who helped broker the original deal during the Clinton administration—are ready to walk away from the billions the government has already sunk into it. In March, the president’s budget proposal called for the project to be put on hold while the Energy Department returns to the drawing board.

In official reports and in congressional testimony, the Energy Department’s inspector general has been raising concerns about the runaway costs and overly optimistic timeline since 2005, two years before workers first broke ground. The Government Accountability Office joined the chorus in 2010. And the Union of Concerned Scientists called for the government to pull the plug back in 2011. Adding to concerns is the fact that no commercial power plant has agreed to burn the fuel in its reactors, something that raises the very real possibility that the government would have to either pay companies to take the fuel off its hands or let it sit on-site unburned. Most troubling, the Center for Public Integrity published a detailed report last summer that raised concerns over whether tweaks to Russia’s side of the deal will actually leave Moscow with more—not less—plutonium when all is said and done.

And yet the federal cash continues to flow.

Last month’s audit found that “the level of effort needed to install equipment was higher than anticipated, staff turnover was greater than expected, and subcontractors experienced problems meeting nuclear quality assurance requirements.” The project has, as the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Robert Raines admitted to concerned lawmakers last year, fallen victim to the “tendency towards optimism” that plagues many large-scale projects.

The NNSA, a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department that has jurisdiction over the facility, declined my requests to visit the site and to speak on the record about the project. But I toured the complex in the months before the official groundbreaking in 2007, when such optimism was very much on display. Construction began that summer with the goal of bringing the facility online by fall 2016. Seven years later, the facility is estimated to be only 60 percent complete, and won’t be finished until 2019 at the earliest. But even that extended deadline seems unlikely. According to the inspector general’s audit, design work is still underway in a whole host of areas, including software, control systems, and fire suppression. NNSA has been unable to confirm if the new 2019 projection is possible, and a review of the new schedule is on hold for at least the next year while the Energy Department weighs its options.

The bloated, behind-schedule federal project has one set of vocal defenders: the South Carolina state government. Palmetto State politicians have long deflected criticism of any federal dollar earmarked for the Savannah River Site, and have repeatedly rallied behind the MOX project despite the mounting concerns.

After taking a helicopter tour of the site in April, Gov. Nikki Haley told reporters that the ballooning MOX costs are “not our problem” but instead a federal issue. “You’ve made a very real investment. There is structure and everything there. And now they are just going to walk away from it? It really defies all logic,” she said. Sen. Lindsey Graham, likewise, has repeatedly called the White House plan to return to the drawing board “irresponsible” and “reckless,” words the Republican legislator might normally reserve for over-budget federal projects that are taking place outside of his home state.

“There is still a long, arduous fight ahead,” Graham said in April after the White House temporarily backed down in the face of South Carolina’s threatened lawsuit. He went on to vow that he’d use his perch on the powerful Appropriations Committee to ensure that the Energy Department’s plan to shutter the facility “does not become a reality.” History suggests it won’t.

Correction, June 4, 2014: The caption on the photo at the top of this article originally misstated when the picture of the Savannah River Site construction was taken. It’s from 2007, not 2013.