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Energy Watchdog: Plutonium Plant's Missteps Still Loom Large

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Workers lay concrete in 2008 at the unfinished Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. The Energy Department's inspector general sees a risk of repeating errors that led to cost overruns in the project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Workers lay concrete in 2008 at the unfinished Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. The Energy Department's inspector general sees a risk of repeating errors that led to cost overruns in the project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo)

Auditors said the Energy Department may repeat missteps that led to cost and schedule overruns in an initiative to eliminate weapon-grade plutonium.

Officials used an "immature design" to establish a 2007 "baseline" plan for a new facility to convert the plutonium into mixed-oxide reactor fuel, the Energy Department's inspector general said in a new report. Gregory Friedman and his audit team said the move led to inappropriately optimistic predictions on construction costs and employee turnover. Ultimately, ramifications included three years of delays and nearly $3 billion in unexpected costs for the project at South Carolina's Savannah River Site.

"We remain concerned with the project management issues observed during the audit," Friedman said in the May 22 assessment.

He said the problems found by his office's investigation and by similar probes are "applicable to the future direction of the MOX Facility and other large department construction projects." Previously, the Army Corps of Engineers determined that the MOX plant would cost $30 billion to build and maintain.

The Energy Department earlier this year announced plans to mothball the MOX facility, due to rising costs and schedule delays. The department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration is still evaluating options for disposing of the 34 metric tons of excess U.S. weapons-grade plutonium, as required under a nonproliferation deal with Russia.

"This assessment and [an] associated independent review are expected to be completed in the next 12 to 18 months," according to the inspector general's report. "We are hopeful that the audit results can help to inform the current project reassessment."

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