Before retiring from Congress four years ago, David Hobson, a powerful subcommittee chairman, says he couldn’t fathom why the Energy Department was so determined to build a multibillion dollar plant in South Carolina for transforming plutonium into fuel for US nuclear reactors.
Although the plant was billed as a noble arms control initiative, meant to dispose of the plutonium so it could not be used in weapons again, Hobson was troubled by billions in cost overruns, a lack of demand for the reactor fuel and the existence of cheaper alternatives.
Hobson, now 76, said in an interview that he concluded the project had three real aims: It was a multi-billion dollar jobs program for South Carolina, a Bush White House political gift to then-Gov. Mark Sanford and the state’s mainly Republican congressional delegation, and the potential kickoff of a much more ambitious and costly enterprise meant to benefit the nuclear industry.
None of those justifications appealed to Hobson, a Republican from west of Columbus, Ohio, who chaired the House appropriations subcommittee on energy and water. But they reflected the heavily political impetus for the project, which so far has survived billion-dollar cost overruns, a series of construction snafus, and revisions to its goals that call into question whether the effort will shrink the risks of plutonium’s misuse.
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