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Senate Faults NNSA For Rising Cost of MOX Site

Senate appropriators last week faulted the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration for not sufficiently explaining why the projected operations cost of a mixed-oxide facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina has ballooned in recent years even as they approved hundreds of millions of dollars in additional financing for the project, the Augusta Chronicle reported (see GSN, April 30).

The Senate Appropriations Committee signed off on $388.8 million in fiscal 2013 spending to continue construction of the controversial facility that would convert 34 metric tons of nuclear-weapon plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for use in atomic energy reactors. 

The estimated yearly cost of running the MOX fuel plant has increased from $156 million to slightly less than $500 million, according to an unfinalized version of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development legislation for the budget year that begins on Oct. 1. The semiautonomous Energy Department agency with oversight of the U.S. nuclear stockpile "has failed to provide a sufficient justification for this increase," according to a report that accompanies the bill.

The $4.8 billion MOX facility is three-fifths finished; it is slated to go online in 2016 and to begin converting one-time warhead material into reactor fuel no later than 2018.

Senate budget drafters said they backed the nuclear agency's plan to cancel an effort to build a separate installation at the Savannah River Site that would take apart the plutonium cores from warheads. 

"The committee supports NNSA’s decision to terminate the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility because of significant cost overruns. However, the committee is concerned by NNSA’s failure to identify alternatives earlier, before spending $700,000,000 over 13 years and determining that existing facilities could be used to meet mission needs," the panel said.

A lasting determination is anticipated to come sometime this year on what assortment of existing nuclear sites will be used for preparing the contents of warhead pits for MOX production (Rob Pavey, Augusta Chronicle I, April 30).

Senate appropriators' decision to fully fund the MOX facility differs somewhat from Congress' lower chamber. The House, while also approving the requested $388.8 million in construction funding, recommended freezing the release of related project funding totaling $152.8 million, according to the Chronicle (Rob Pavey, Augusta Chronicle II, April 25).

The measures from the Democratic-lead Senate and the Republican-controlled House will have to be meshed in conference committee.

MOX plant construction contractor Shaw AREVA MOX Services is looking for areas to reduce expenses, company President Kelly Trice stated by e-mail to the newspaper.

"Despite these costs being drive up by the 'nuclear renaissance,' we are about 60 percent complete with the project and are currently on track to finish in approximately four years," he wrote (Pavey, Augusta Chronicle I).

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