Tuesday marks an important day in the quest for continued funding for Savannah River Site’s mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility.
President Obama is expected to announce his fiscal 2017 budget requests, and opponents and supporters of the embattled project are expected to again keep a close eye on how the facility fares.
The plant is designed to help the U.S. meet the terms of a 2000 agreement with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium,
According to contractors, the site is about 70 percent complete, and roughly $5 billion has been spent to date to construct the main facility with an additional $3 billion needed to finish it. The fabrication plant was originally projected to cost $1.7 billion, according to Augusta Chronicle archives. Construction began in 2007.
Last year, the project secured $345 million in funding through 2016.
In April, Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center in California, estimated that it would cost $47.5 billion to complete and operate the MOX plant by 2044. It suggested that the one alternative, sending down-blended plutonium to a repository in New Mexico, could save the government nearly $30 billion, according to Chronicle archives.
Last week, High Bridge Associates, a nuclear construction consulting firm, released the executive summary of the impact of surplus weapons plutonium being disposed of at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, rejecting those claims.
Though it did not develop detailed cost estimates for WIPP, which is not in operation, the firm estimated that the cost to transport, store and safeguard plutonium at the facility would exceed $20 billion. It estimates that the MOX plant could be operational by 2022 if fully funded.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last year assembled the Plutonium Deposition Red Team, a collection of industry experts, to compare the two options. It found that down-blending plutonium for storage at the New Mexico plant could still save $400 million over the MOX project annually, The Chronicle reported.
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, of Augusta, said after a plant visit last month that contractors told him mothballing the project could cost up to $500 million and could kill any chance of it being completed. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, whose district includes SRS, last week told the House Budget Committee that MOX is perhaps the most “viable method at this time of disposing of weapons-grade plutonium and (the) country’s only means to honor the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement” with Russia.
Both lawmakers have voiced their support for completing the project.
Last month, Gov. Nikki Haley asked South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to sue the U.S. Department of Energy for failing to meet statutory obligations regarding the MOX plant, but no timetable for action has been announced.
As part of an agreement, the federal government could be asked to pay $1 million a day or $100 million annually until the plutonium stored at SRS is removed or the MOX facility is operational.