Cost estimate for MOX facility at Savannah River Site swells to $47.5 billion



The cost estimate to finish building and operating the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at Savannah River Site has swelled to $47.5 billion, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

A second option for plutonium disposition, called downblending, was estimated to cost $17.2 billion in a report released to Congress on Wednesday, according to the NNSA, a semi-autonomous branch of the U.S. Department of Energy that manages the MOX facility.

Congress ordered Aerospace Corp., a California-based federally-funded research and development center, to prepare an independent assessment of the cost and schedule for the MOX facility that has cost overruns in the billions.

Full details of the report won’t be known to the public for months. Although not classified, it was released only to Congress because it contains “proprietary information,” said NNSA spokesman Derrick Robinson.

“Aerospace is working on a version of the report that has no distribution restrictions. This process could take a few months,” he said in a statement.

Robinson said the $47.5 billion estimate represents money needed to complete disposition of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel using the MOX plant. That cost includes $17.1 billion to complete construction of the facility by 2044, he said.

Downblending, the alternative method considered in the report, requires diluting plutonium, packaging it in containers and shipping it to a repository for permanent disposal.

DOE released a report a year ago assessing plutonium disposition options after the Obama administration called for placing MOX facility construction on standby while considering cheaper alternatives. Previous reports estimated the life-cycle cost at $30 billion.

Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for CB&I Project Services Group, one of the companies building the MOX facility, said the Aerospace Corp. report does not align with the contractor’s estimates. It also contradicts other government reports, he said.

“By our calculations, it will take an additional $3.3 billion to complete the project, and it will be done in 5 to 9 years depending on the amount of annual funding appropriations,” Wilkes said in an e-mail, adding that it will cost $8 billion to operate the plant over 20 years.

About $4.4 billion has been spent on the facility that is about 65 percent complete, he said.

Construction began on the 600,000-square-foot facility in 2007. The MOX plant has faced continual federal funding drawbacks. It received $345 million in fiscal year 2015, and the same amount was proposed for 2016.

Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a critic of the MOX program, said the NNSA has no reason to withhold the report from the public. The cost estimates indicate the MOX program should be halted rather than waste taxpayer dollars, he said.

“Supporters of the MOX program are going to be embarrassed about this. I think they are worried about the political repercussions,” Lyman said. “This reflects what we believed for a while that the initial estimates were wildly too low.”

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