- - Monday, March 19, 2018

President Trump’s January 30 State of the Union Address brought home a big reminder of our American character, one founded on doing big things with grit and speed. He reminded us that America “is a nation of builders,” and cited the Empire State Building — completed in just a year — as an example of what we can do when we commit our resolve.

Our country has never lost that spirit, though we seem in recent decades to have allowed its hijacking by obstructionism and bureaucracy. The president recognizes that, too, and asked, “Is it not a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”

It is a “disgrace.” And it’s no slight to the president — our developer and builder in chief — to point out that bureaucrats in his own administration have sought to frustrate one of the biggest and most cutting-edge building projects in our country and region. I’m referring to the MOX Project — the “Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility” — that sits 70 percent complete, just over the state line from Augusta, where it employs over a thousand Georgians.

Under agreements with Russia (with which Russia has complied), signed by both the Clinton and Obama administrations, both countries were to build facilities to convert at least 34 metric tons of their own deadly surplus weapons-grade plutonium to civilian nuclear energy fuel, enough material for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons. MOX fuel, when “burned” to generate electricity, destroys the weapons potential of the plutonium.

The manufactured MOX fuel would be available at a significant discount to companies I regulate like Georgia Power, which is moving full speed ahead to complete its two-reactor expansion of the Vogtle station. Consumers throughout the region will benefit over the long life of these projects. It is the ultimate in recycling.

Vogtle and MOX are the last standing pillars of what was once heralded to be a “renaissance” in America’s nuclear energy infrastructure. But the knives have been out for MOX since 2013, when its customer, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), changed its mind about MOX. They aim to “manage MOX to termination.” How short-sighted can we be?

Obama administration holdovers have managed to convince key Trump appointees that there’s a “faster and cheaper” way to go for plutonium disposal. This means scrapping the government’s $5 billion investment in MOX and starting all over. They want to use a process called “Dilute & Dispose” — never done before on a commercial scale — and then take decades to send the plutonium to a repository in New Mexico. But federal law caps the capacity of New Mexico’s “WIPP” repository; there’s no unreserved space there.

How were the “builders” of the new Trump era led astray by holdovers? For one thing, holdovers commissioned a series of home-cooked “studies” about the cost and schedule for MOX — studies for which the NNSA itself dictated the assumptions. The latest of these claimed that it would take another $12 billion to finish MOX (on top of the $5 billion already spent), and an additional 31 years.

That’s 31 years to finish the final 30 percent of MOX, when it took only 10 years to get to the 70 percent milestone — construction began in 2007. This doesn’t make sense — or as we might say in Georgia, “that dog don’t hunt.”

At the same time, the bureaucrats are slow-walking money Congress authorized for MOX that was strictly for “MOX construction and construction support activities” — not for “management to termination.” They have also ignored a National Defense Authorization Act, which mandated a “re-baselining” of MOX to bring cost and schedule information up to date from the original 2007 numbers.

Many of us who supported President Trump did so because we recovered our own American DNA, our character as a nation of builders, creators and innovators. We didn’t accept stagnant wages and 2 percent economic growth as a “new normal.”

Much of the country got it right on election night. Now it’s time for federal government bureaucrats at DOE and for those beguiled by Deep State inspired costs and schedules, to also get it right. Our builder in chief laid out a vision on January 30, and it’s available on the Internet for DOE’s Washington bureaucrats, who need a refresher course.

Finishing MOX — the biggest nonproliferation project in the world — and finishing big things we start — with discipline, smarts and honesty, affirms that we’re still a nation of builders who make really big things. We can finish big things like Vogtle and MOX, and show the world the real America.

Tim Echols is vice-chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

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