NEW ELLENTON, S.C. — The manager of Savannah River Site said Tuesday that it does not look like the federal facility will have a budget as of Oct. 1, prompting his administration to work on funding alternatives to combat a partial government shutdown.
Jack Craig told SRS’s Citizens Advisory Board during its monthly meeting that SRS is developing several “planning scenarios” to start work at the site for the upcoming fiscal year if Congress does not pass a federal budget in the next 10 days and a partial government shutdown happens.
He said that includes federal funding of a 30-day or three-month resolution in which the site would be allocated one-12th of its budget until Congress passes a nationwide spending plan.
If Congress cannot come to terms, Craig said, all discretionary cleanup work at SRS would come to a halt and related workers would likely be furloughed.
“If that happens, the first action we would take would be to determine how much funding we have remaining from this past fiscal year to carry over and pay our workforce,” Craig said of a shutdown. “If we do not have enough carryover, then employees would be furloughed, like in 2013.”
When the federal government experienced a partial shutdown two years ago, the Department of Energy notified 1,400 SRS workers, mostly those employed by liquid-waste contractor Savannah River Remediation, that they were placed on unpaid leave “until further notice.” The shutdown lasted 15 days.
Beyond budget concerns, Craig said SRS contractors who oversee administration, cleanup, security and construction projects at the site will expire within the next four to five years and be reopened for bid. He said SRR’s liquid-waste contract is up first.
Tom Clements, director of the watchdog group SRS Watch, urged the Citizens Advisory Board to be “particularly attentive” to how the energy department is managing SRS contractors now. Citing mismanagement, contract overruns, and procedural violations with a number of SRS companies, he recommended the board request copies of annual evaluations the site uses to determine performance bonuses to see what role DOE is playing in overseeing its contractors.
“We are only skimming the surface of what is going on at the site,” Clements said.
Among the programs Clements referenced was the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility under construction at SRS.
The plant, construction of which started in 2007, was projected to cost $1.7 billion in 1999, but was revised in 2013 to $7.7 billion. Additionally, a report by Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center based in California, found it would cost about $47.5 billion to finish building the MOX facility by 2044 and dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, as the U.S. agreed to do in a 2000 treaty with Russia.
Like Clements, critics nationwide are challenging the MOX program, with some advocating for a switch to a process that ships down-blended plutonium to New Mexico for burial at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). In response, a report by High Bridge Associates, a nuclear construction consulting firm retained by MOX Services Board of Governors, found plant completion is the lowest cost alternative and best solution.
“The Aerospace report used ‘technically flawed’ non-standard accounting methodology in its cost analysis, by using escalated real-year dollars, which artificially inflated total MOX project costs,” the report concluded. “If standard practices were used, the total estimated project costs of MOX versus Dilution would have been nearly comparable at $19 billion for MOX Life Cycle Cost and $20 billion for (down-blending).”
Clements said recent reports show there has been no accountability for a project that has run far over budget and beyond schedule.
“It is being protected politically and I am afraid that what is happening with MOX is how DOE is dealing with contractors in other areas,” he said.
Clements said that includes Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, which issued an “operational pause” this month for nonessential work after an incident occurred on Sept. 3 in SRS’ HB-Line, where material for the site’s mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility is processed.
Carol Johnson, president and CEO of SRNS, said a violation of standard-operating procedure occurred while three operators and a first-line supervisor were extracting three samples, or 400 ounces, of plutonium for placement in critically safe containers that would be transported to a storage vault.
The crew performing the work, she said, made a decision midway through the extraction process to use a non-specified container, a violation of standard operating procedure approved by management.