U.S. Senate budget writers followed their House counterparts this week with questions about the rising costs of the mixed oxide fuel plant under construction at Savannah River Site.
In particular, the projected annual cost of operating the facility – after it is completed – has risen from $156 million to $499 million in just two budget years, according to a new draft of the 2013 Senate Energy & Water Development Appropriations bill.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Energy Department that manages nuclear weapons programs, “has failed to provide a sufficient justification for this increase,” the report said.
The $4.8 billion MOX plant is the centerpiece of a plan to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads by blending the material with uranium to make commercial reactor fuel. The facility is 60 percent complete and scheduled to open in 2016, with fuel production under way by 2018.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also wrote that it supports NNSA’s proposal to abandon plans for a standalone facility to disassemble plutonium “pits” from surplus warheads but questioned the costs that went into planning a facility that NNSA now says is not needed.
“The Committee supports NNSA’s decision to terminate the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility because of significant cost overruns,” the report said. “However, the Committee is concerned by NNSA’s failure to identify alternatives earlier, before spending $700,000,000 over 13 years and determining that existing facilities could be used to meet mission needs.”
Under the most recent plan, the process of converting the pits into an oxide form suitable for MOX feedstock will be conducted using a combination of existing facilities. A final record of decision on that alternative is expected later this year.
Despite the critical questions, the Senate appropriations bill recommends fully funding the fiscal 2013 request for $388.8 million in construction funds for the project, just as the House Appropriations Committee did last week.
House budget writers also raised questions about the project’s costs and asked for an inquiry from the Energy Department’s comptroller general to gauge the accuracy of the cost projections.
“The Department is now reporting internally that the total project costs could be understated by as much as $600 million to $900 million, and that the project will overrun its projected completion date by months if not years,” the committee wrote.
Kelly Trice, the president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, which is building the plant, said officials are working diligently to find ways to cut costs or avoid cost increases, but will continue to focus on quality workmanship and maintaining an excellent safety record.
“Despite these costs being driven up by the ‘nuclear renaissance,’ we are about 60 percent complete with the project and are currently on track to finish in approximately 4 years,” he said, in an e-mailed statement.