It appears Savannah River Site’s embattled mixed-oxide fuel factory will be funded another year, possibly beating back opposition from critics who want the project terminated after several reports showed it was over budget and behind schedule.
The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, approved Tuesday by a House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., permits the U.S. Department of Energy to spend $345 million in fiscal year 2016 to “carry out construction and project support activities relating to the MOX facility.”
The spending bill – authored by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities – has yet to be passed by the Senate, but would likely make it harder for the Obama administration to kill MOX and end growing speculation that the project would be terminated.
“We have not terminated the MOX project,” said Al Stotts, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency overseeing the MOX project for the Energy Department. “Per the direction of Congress, the department is continuing construction of the MOX facility.”
Leacy Burke, Wilson’s press secretary, said the House is expected to vote on the legislation today before it goes to the Senate for approval early next week.
Though Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a MOX supporter on the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations, could help secure project funding, the latest conference report of the National Defense Authorization Act does include some MOX spending restrictions.
It stipulates that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz must submit in his 2017 budget proposal to Congress a cost analysis for MOX that shows how much has been spent and will be spent in the future for construction, design, procurement and site preparation activities for the facility.
It also limits Moniz to spending no more than $5 million of MOX funds for fiscal year 2016 to “conduct an analysis of alternative options” for carrying out the U.S. plutonium disposition program.
In 2015, at least three reports were issued on whether MOX is the best option in fulfilling a 2000 treaty the U.S. signed with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
In April an initial 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 and operate the MOX facility by 2044.
In August, industry experts assembled by Moniz known as the “Red Team” found that MOX would need to increase its annual budget from $400 million now to between $700 million and $800 million in the next two to three years to be viable.
Both studies favored shipping down-blended plutonium to a New Mexico nuclear waste repository for burial as an option that could save the federal government billions.
However, last week, 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.If standard practices were used, the report concluded that the total estimated project costs of MOX ($19 billion) would have been nearly comparable at $20 billion for down-blending.
MOX, construction of which started in 2007, was projected to cost $1.7 billion in 1999, but was revised in 2013 to $7.7 billion.