Energy Nominee Blocked Over Cuts at S.C. Nuclear-Waste Plant

Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

In his recent confirmation hearing, Ernest Moniz told senators that one of his very first trips as Energy secretary would be to Hanford, the troublesome nuclear-waste site in Washington state. But Moniz might be wise to detour down to South Carolina on his way in light of a move Tuesday by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to block his confirmation.

Graham complains that President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal 2014 would slash funding for a plutonium-reprocessing facility along the Savannah River in South Carolina and redirect the government’s plans for dealing with weapons-grade nuclear waste to other options.

“When it comes to lowering costs, count me in,” Graham said to Anne Harrington, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, at a budget hearing Tuesday. “When it comes to studying another way to do it, count me out.”

“We’re halfway through,” Graham said to Harrington. “There is no other way to do it.”

Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment about what exactly the senator is requesting in order to lift the hold on Moniz, who otherwise should expect a relatively easy confirmation. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also expressed concerns about the Savannah River project at Moniz’s confirmation hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month. Scott was the only member to vote against Moniz’s confirmation in committee.

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, the project’s costs have more than quadrupled to $7.7 billion in the past eight years and will take three more years than planned to complete, until 2019.

The NNSA’s budget states about the project: “In an environment where the Budget Control Act and sequestration severely curtail our resources, we need to step back and review all available options.”

According to the agency’s budget proposal, funding for the Savannah River project’s construction would be slashed by about 25 percent in the next fiscal year—from $435,172 last year to a proposed $320,000 in 2014. (Cleanup work at the Hanford site actually saw a funding increase in this year’s budget.)

The Energy Department directed inquiries on the matter to a White House spokesman, who did not have a comment.

Obama’s first Energy secretary, Steven Chu, left the post Tuesday and Acting Secretary Daniel Poneman has taken over while Moniz awaits confirmation.

This article appeared in the Wednesday, April 24, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.

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