In 2005, when ground was broken for the mixed oxide fuel plant at Savannah River Site, the one-of-a-kind nuclear project held a bright future with thousands of jobs and a vital new mission.
Today, however, as spiraling costs clash with limited federal budgets, the half-finished MOX plant, along with its 2,300 jobs, could be in jeopardy.
Congress is reviewing the Obama administration’s new assertion that the program “may be unaffordable,” which could leave its future very much in question.
The top-secret factory, with 600,000 square feet and three times as much steel as the Eiffel Tower, was designed to dispose of plutonium from thousands of dismantled warheads by blending it into fuel for commercial power reactors.
The MOX plant was projected in 1999 to cost $1.7 billion. The estimate rose to $4.9 billion – and last month was revised to $7.7 billion with news that its completion would be three years later than planned.
Observers believe the U.S. Energy Department’s fiscal 2014 budget request, which slashed $132.7 million, or 29.3 percent, from the project’s construction budget, is a sign the project will be halted, and possibly abandoned.
Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, believes the limited 2014 funds will be even leaner in subsequent years, rendering the project unsustainable.
“This could be the death of the program,” he said, citing reports that the fiscal 2015 outlook suggests just $225 million for MOX. “To me, that is closeout,” he said.
Although about $4 billion has been spent on the project, which is about 60 percent complete, administration officials now say other options must be considered.
“This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable … due to cost growth and fiscal pressure,” the 2014 budget summary said, adding that officials will “assess the feasibility of alternative plutonium disposition strategies.”
Clements said it is very possible a project could be halted, even after spending $4 billion.
“The problem isn’t the $4 billion they’ve already spent,” he said. “It’s how much it would cost looking forward if they go ahead with it, and we have calculated that figure at $22 billion.”
It might be cheaper and faster, he said, to vitrify the unwanted plutonium in glass to be sealed in steel canisters, as the site’s Defense Waste Processing Facility has successfully done with other materials since 1996, processing more than 3,600 containers.
Although the immediate impact of proposed budget cuts to MOX have not been released, the president of the consortium building the project shared concerns last week of losing a workforce that has taken years to assemble.
“In the short term, we could deal with it, but if it’s longer term, like multiple years, it’s harder to predict,” said Kelly Trice, the president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, noting that there are currently about $500 million in procurement contracts in various stages of completion.
Trice, who spoke to reporters mainly to share details of a MOX milestone – the completion of the building’s concrete roof – noted that the structure still has 110 openings for equipment that has not yet been delivered. Halting construction, he said, would still require further efforts to stabilize the site.
Some of South Carolina’s lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, are working to save MOX.
“Given that the president’s recent budget suggestion is just a proposal, no workforce reduction numbers have been discussed,” said his spokeswoman, Caroline Delleney.
“Congressman Wilson is doing his best to advocate for the MOX facility and will continue to do so throughout the appropriations process,” she said. “He has been in contact with several committees that will be responsible for appropriating resources for the plant.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is also part of “a concerted effort to right this ill-conceived decision,” said his spokesman, Kevin Bishop.
Graham noted in a statement that be believes the MOX program has been thoroughly studied and evaluated. “The MOX plant has always been and will remain the best plan to dispose of weapons grade plutonium,” he said.