Lawmakers Concerned by MOX Plant Expense, Schedule

(Jun. 17) -The Savannah River Site in South Carolina. House appropriators are worried by the rising costs of building a facility at the Energy Department site for converting weapon-usable plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).
(Jun. 17) -The Savannah River Site in South Carolina. House appropriators are worried by the rising costs of building a facility at the Energy Department site for converting weapon-usable plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

House appropriators have expressed worries over the schedule and increasing expense of building a facility in South Carolina that is intended to convert weapon-usable plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for powering nuclear reactors, the Augusta, Ga., Chronicle reported on Wednesday (see GSN, April 5).

"The costs of this program continue to escalate, with current estimates of as much as $9.7 billion, just to construct the needed facilities," lawmakers stated in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill for the next budget year (see GSN, June 16).

The Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site is intended to support a 2000 deal in which Russia and the United States agreed to each eliminate 34 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium. Anticipated costs today come in under the existing estimate of $4.8 billion, which does not include $345 million required for a "waste solidification building," according to the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.

A key question that remains is whether to build a new structure for turning plutonium cores into oxide material for the MOX facility or to convert standing structures for the job, officials say.

"After spending nearly $650 million over 11 years, the NNSA has failed to even make a decision between constructing a new facility or recapitalizing existing facilities in order to supply feedstock to the MOX plant," panel lawmakers stated.

"Cost estimates have ballooned to as much as $4.5 billion, a tenfold increase over original estimates, yet the department will still not be ready to make a decision on its next milestone until next fiscal year," they added.

The Obama administration had sought $176 million for the plutonium "pit" effort, but the legislation calls for spending only $20 million in the new budget year that begins on October 1.

"The committee will not support wasting funds on extended deliberations, and will not support such large increases unless the milestone is finally awarded and a consistent plan to provide feedstock is developed," the legislation states.

The panel also has concerns about the likelihood of persuading nuclear power plant operators to accept the MOX fuel. While the Tennessee Valley Authority is looking at operating up to five plants with the converted weapons material, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy site in Japan could reduce the likelihood of such collaboration, according to the Chronicle (see GSN, June 15).

"Ultimately, the success of the overall program hinges on its ability to attract civilian customers," lawmakers wrote.

"With considerable investments already made, the NNSA must show leadership and prove it has not undertaken an expensive and wasteful program which will ultimately produce a fuel that industry does not want or that presents unnecessary risks that exceed any nonproliferation benefits," they stated (Rob Pavey, Augusta Chronicle, June 15).

June 17, 2011
About

House appropriators have expressed worries over the schedule and increasing expense of building a facility in South Carolina that is intended to convert weapon-usable plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for powering nuclear reactors, the Augusta, Ga., Chronicle reported on Wednesday (see GSN, April 5).