The government’s MOX project is mired in layers of limbo that could come to a head when a new federal budget year begins Oct. 1.
The facility designed to turn bomb-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel is midway through a budget-induced downsizing that could idle 500 workers.
The layoffs are being made to accommodate reductions in the U.S. Energy Department’s fiscal 2014 budget requests.
The project now employs about 1,800 workers, down from 2,200 in April, said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for Shaw Areva MOX Services, the project’s contractor.
Some of those losses are due to subcontractors leaving after their work is completed, but the reduction also includes layoffs and vacancies created by workers who left for other jobs.
“Workers who have found new jobs since the layoff plan was announced have reduced the number,” he said. “We were projecting 500 but it will very likely be less than that.”
In addition to budget cuts, the Savannah River Site project also faces an uncertain future over rising costs that critics say could render the program unaffordable.
The MOX facility, about 60 percent complete, is the cornerstone of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nonproliferation plan and part of an important treaty with Russia.
However, the plant has become increasingly expensive and behind schedule, with construction costs recently revised from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion.
That’s when the Energy Department announced plans to “assess alternatives” to MOX – a sign that critics believe could herald the abandonment of a facility where more than $4 billion has already been spent.
Conclusions from that assessment could emerge soon, perhaps in early October, when the new budget year begins.
In the meantime, it remains unknown whether a cheaper alternative to MOX has been identified.
Kelly Trice, the president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, was asked about those assessments during an Aug. 27 briefing he gave the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“The new (Energy Department) secretary is weighing different options, and we believe in the near term he’s going to make a decision on the path forward, and we’ll know then,” he told Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane. “And I’m sorry I can’t give you much more than that.”
Even with a slimmed- down workforce, the mixed oxide fuel facility is still under construction and moving forward, Wilkes said.
“People talk about a ‘pause’ but there is no pause,” he said.
“It’s continuing to be built. It’s not a mission of stabilization or preservation; it’s still a mission of construction.”