Environmental groups seek updated cost estimates for MOX project

The "MOX" project at Savannah River Site will dispose of surplus plutonium by blending it with uranium to make commercial reactor fuel.

Environmental groups asserted this week that design changes and other factors will add at least $2 billion to the cost of the government’s mixed oxide project at Savannah River Site.


The one-of-a-kind MOX plant, which has been under construction six years, is designed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by blending small amounts with uranium to make fuel rods for commercial power reactors – a process that forever renders the plutonium unusable for weapons.

In joint comments responding to a revised supplemental environmental impact statement addressing changes in the MOX program, 40 environmental groups said updated budget figures are needed – both for construction and operating costs.

“The MOX plant cost estimate has been frozen at $4.8 billion for the last several years,” said the groups, which include the Sierra Club chapters, Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The schedule calls for the plant to be completed in 2016 and begin producing commercial fuel in 2018.

However, the groups noted, a 2003 U.S. Department of Energy estimate placed the construction cost at $1.7 billion and forecast a completion date in 2007.

Although new cost estimates have not been publicly released, the groups cited a Sept. 26 report in an industry trade publication, Weapons Complex Monitor, that the internal baseline cost of building the plant had jumped $2 billion.

“Despite repeated requests from public interest groups, DOE has adamantly refused for all of 2012 to release this new cost estimate for either the MOX plant construction or overall plutonium disposition program and is keeping this vital information secret,” the groups said.

The government has not altered its mission to dispose of the plutonium, but has amended its original plan to build a freestanding plant to process plutonium “pits” from dismantled warheads into powder for use at the MOX plant. Instead, the new plan – which required amendments to the environmental statements – will use existing facilities, including the H Canyon area at Savannah River Site, to accomplish the same mission.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and is in charge of the MOX project, is working with Tennessee Valley Authority in its quest to find clients willing to use the fuel. So far, no formal agreement has been reached.

The comment period for the revised environmental impact statement closed Thursday, and the Department of Energy expects to evaluate all comments and issue a record of decision on the changes sometime in 2013.

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Read the complete text of comments (PDF)