Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith write: A multibillion-dollar U.S.-led effort to stem the threat of a terrorist nuclear blast is slowly unraveling because of huge cost overruns at a federal installation in South Carolina and stubborn resistance in Moscow to fulfilling the program’s chief goal, according to U.S. officials and independent experts.
The 13-year-old Energy Department program, authorized in agreements with Moscow spanning three presidents, is meant to transform excess plutonium taken from retired U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons into fuel for nuclear plants, so that it can’t be stolen and misused.
But that ambitious goal has been blocked by a tangle of technical, diplomatic, and financial problems. The Obama administration is now considering cancelling the project, an idea that has provoked furious opposition from some Republican lawmakers who say it is vital to U.S. national security.
Its potential demise has provoked cheers from some leading arms control and nonproliferation experts, however. They say that as a result of little-noticed revisions to the underlying pact with Moscow on the plutonium’s disposal, the deal might actually wind up promoting Russia’s production of as much or more plutonium as it was supposed to eliminate.
To keep its end of the bargain, the United States has spent more than a decade and $3.7 billion building a problem-plagued factory for making the plutonium-laced reactor fuel, located at the government’s Savannah River complex south of Aiken. Its construction and related costs have recently hit more than $680 million a year, but Congress is now considering a White House plan to shrink that spending substantially. [Continue reading…]