The consortium building the mixed oxide fuel plant at Savannah River Site is bracing for possible budget cuts that could stall a project already facing criticism for cost overruns and delays.
“It’s reasonable to say there would be a big impact,” said Kelly Trice, the president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services. He said Thursday that it is possible the fiscal year 2014 federal budget could include cuts for the program.
The MOX plant, part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nonproliferation effort, is designed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium extracted from dismantled warheads. Blending the material with uranium to make reactor fuel renders the plutonium permanently unusable for weapons.
If the new budget, to be released next week, includes cuts severe enough to cause even a temporary halt to construction, it could disperse an experienced workforce that would be difficult to reassemble, Trice said.
About 2,300 workers are employed at the site.
“In the short term, we could deal with it, but if it’s longer term, like multiple years, it’s harder to predict,” he said.
A 50 percent cut, he said, would allow the partly finished structure to remain intact and stable but would affect equipment and materials being made in many parts of the country. The effect on local jobs, he added, would depend on the impact on procurement.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy forecast that the plant’s $4.9 billion cost would increase to $7.7 billion and that the start of operations would be delayed from October 2016 to November 2019.
Trice said that original estimate goes back to 2005 and has risen because of the challenges of building a nuclear facility in a nation where such construction has not occurred in decades.
“The U.S. had a lot of nuclear manufacturing dormancy,” he said. “The cost of manufacturing high-level components is very challenging.”
The project, he said, has an excellent safety record and has met strict oversight and quality control standards imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – but those have come at a cost.
“We’ve had to enhance oversight of vendors and suppliers to the point of embedding inspectors in their shops,” he said, adding that there are more than 400 contracts under way for materials produced in 40 states.
The MOX plant is a one-of-a-kind facility that has undergone design refinements, along with increases in commodity and equipment prices. Also affecting price and schedule is the increasing cost of personnel, Trice said: Turnover in the nuclear industry has been accelerated by competition from nearby nuclear projects.
“All those complications have really challenged us, but we are able to work through them,” Trice said.
Though critics have called for a halt to the MOX program, Trice said he believes it will survive.
“My gut feeling is good,” he said. “My belief is that the administration is firmly on our side and they believe this is important. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.”
Trice had positive news about potential new clients interested in using MOX reactor fuel.
“There are several new players who want to participate in the program,” he said. Low natural gas prices have pushed nuclear power producers to become more competitive, he said.
Critics continue to seek a halt to the project, citing the absence of reliable long-term “life-cycle cost” estimates that could become astronomical. Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, called the plant a “monument to mismanagement.”