A federal program in South Carolina which would eventually take surplus weapons-grade plutonium and process it for use in commercial nuclear power is in the process of laying off hundreds of its employees.
A spokesman for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Facility at the Savannah River Site confirmed that over 500 sixty-day layoff notices have been sent to construction and support employees over the past two months.
“As part of a plan to address the federal budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2014, staffing reductions have begun at the MOX Project,” spokesman Bryan Wilkes told South Carolina Radio Network. He emphasized that the situation was not related to the ongoing federal sequestration, but came after the U.S. Energy Department recommended $132.7 million in cuts to the project’s construction budget earlier this year.
The plant has been criticized for higher than expected costs and for running behind schedule. The MOX project was estimated at $1.4 billion in 2004 and predicted to be complete by 2007. However, the Energy Department now lists a price tag of at least $7.7 billion and an estimated completion date sometime in 2017.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has been hoping to convert plutonium into reactor fuel for nuclear power plants. It’s intended as a way to dispose of nuclear warheads as part of a nonproliferation treaty with Russia
But the project’s very future is being debated in Washington right now, as MOX opponents criticize a lack of interested commercial energy companies. They say there are cheaper methods to dispose of old warheads.
Tom Clements of the nuclear watchdog Friends of the Earth said the writing has been on the wall for the MOX Project ever since next year’s proposed budget was released by the White House.
“It was inevitable that the layoffs were coming because the amount for construction just simply couldn’t sustain the project at its current level,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.
The layoffs would reduce the project’s workforce from 1,900 people to as few as 1,400 by the beginning of the new fiscal year in October. Wilkes said officials are still moving forward for now. “Nothing in the project is shutting down,” he said. “The project is continuing, albeit at a slower pace. But it is continuing.”