Safety Incidents at MOX Site Increase Following Budget Cut Rumors

WASHINGTON – The contractor in charge of constructing a facility that would convert nuclear-weapon plutonium into fuel for atomic power plants experienced a spike in worker injuries after rumors began circulating that the project might be the target of massive federal spending cuts due to take effect this week, company officials said.

Kelly Trice, president of Shaw Areva MOX Services, told reporters on Friday that ensuring safety was among his top concerns in light of the potential funding issues.

“Keeping people focused – not worrying about their jobs,” Trice said at a nuclear deterrence summit in Arlington, Va., when asked about the biggest challenge he faced in the current budget climate. “I can’t tell them what Congress is going to do.”

Before the rumors were reported in the press earlier this month, there had been only two recordable safety incidents in 2013 among workers building the mixed-oxide fuel plant at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Trice said.

Following news of the possible sequestration cuts, which according to the Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor could involve outright suspension of the MOX program, the site experienced three recordable safety incidents in a three day period, according to Trice. Pursuant to law, massive, across-the-board spending cuts will take effect March 1 if Congress and President Obama do not reach an agreement to avoid sequestration.

The three incidents were relatively minor and none caused “a lost workday due to injury,” Shaw Areva MOX Services spokesman Bryan Wilkes told Global Security Newswire this week. One worker suffered an injured back after slipping, while another tripped over scaffolding. The third incident involved a worker chipping a tooth during a work-related accident.

Wilkes stressed that despite the incidents, the site maintains a laudable safety record. He said the MOX project recently “achieved a new safety record by surpassing 14 million consecutive safe work hours without a lost workday due to injury” and is poised to be awarded “VPP Star status” next month from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The MOX project's recordable injury rate is less than half that for typical DOE construction projects and one sixth the national average for heavy construction, he said.

The MOX project has been under fire from watchdog groups and some lawmakers following a report this month by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that cited a $2 billion increase for construction of the facility.

In addition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board on Thursday granted additional time for watchdog groups to provide information supporting their argument that Areva’s plan for security of special nuclear materials at the site is insufficient.

Had it ruled on the matter following a preliminary hearing last year, Areva’s plan might have been rejected, the board said in its ruling, noting such a move would have led to denial of an NRC license for the project. The board is scheduled to take up the issue again on May 21.

In January, Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) demanded that the Energy Department disclose when and at what cost it expects to complete the project. He also asked DOE officials to provide information about any nuclear utilities that have expressed interest in purchasing MOX fuel, given that the Tennessee Valley Authority – often cited as a potential customer – recently indicated it has yet to reach a final decision on the matter.

Markey has yet to receive a response from the department. The lawmaker’s letter noted that when construction began in 2007, it was projected to cost $4.8 billion and be completed in 2016.

During his remarks Friday, Trice said assertions that there is no buyer for MOX fuel are “not true.” Wilkes said several utilities had expressed interest but they do not want to be named until the Energy Department completes its environmental impact statement for the project. The environmental review has experienced delays and his now expected in April.

Trice noted that MOX fuel had been used in past U.S. demonstration projects at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California, the Ginna Nuclear Generating Station in New York, the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant in Illinois and elsewhere. He also noted that France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany have used MOX fuel.

February 26, 2013
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WASHINGTON – The contractor in charge of constructing a facility that would convert nuclear-weapon plutonium into fuel for atomic power plants experienced a spike in worker injuries after rumors began circulating that the project might be the target of massive federal spending cuts due to take effect this week, company officials said.

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