U.S. efforts to fulfill a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Russia were challenged last week by a shocking new price tag for the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site.
A federal report estimating $47.5 billion more is needed to complete the plant intended to dispose of surplus nuclear weapons-grade plutonium fed arguments from critics who say the MOX project exemplifies government mismanagement and wasteful spending.
Republican politicians and nuclear proponents, however, question the accuracy of the report by Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research center they say stands to benefit if MOX is shuttered and its funds redirected to other projects.
Meanwhile, the consortium building the facility for the National Nuclear Security Agency, a semi-autonomous branch of the Department of Energy, remains committed to finishing the facility and says the MOX program has been unfairly analyzed and criticized.
David Del Vecchio, the president of the plant’s contractor, CB&I Areva MOX Services, said in a memo to employees that the Aerospace report estimates “lifecycle” costs for the MOX program, which includes costs for associated plutonium disposition operations, some at other DOE sites. Other government programs aren’t measured this way, he said.
“One thing to keep in mind when you read the report’s estimated lifecycle numbers is that DOE and NNSA use a different standard for other projects, currently built or being built,” Del Vecchio said. “In other words, we have been singled out for this enormous lifecycle cost standard and cost figure, which includes all the things I mentioned above, while other projects only have the cost to construct the facility itself as its total cost.”
Construction on the MOX facility began in 2007. In 1999, the MOX plant was projected to cost $1.7 billion to build. The estimate rose to $4.9 billion, and in 2013 the cost was revised to $7.7 billion. Previous reports estimated the lifecycle cost at $30 billion.
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for CB&I Project Services Group, one of the companies building the MOX facility, said the contractor estimates an additional $3.3 billion to complete the plant in five to nine years and $8 billion to operate it over 20 years. About $4.4 billion has been spent so far on the plant, which is about 65 percent complete.
NNSA spokesman Derrick Robinson said Aerospace, which performs work for the NNSA’s office of defense programs, does not have a conflict of interest.
“The Department of Energy selected Aerospace … because it has broad experience in estimating the risks of technically complex, first-of-a-kind, multi-year projects,” Robinson said in an e-mail.
The lifecycle costs have increased since previous reports because of reduced annual federal appropriations, Robinson said. The Aerospace report also considered risks associated with the remaining work, he said.
The MOX plant has faced continual federal funding drawbacks. It received $345 million in fiscal year 2015 after a battle in Congress for more funds than the $221 million the Obama administration proposed to place construction on standby. Another $345 million was proposed for 2016.
Aerospace declined to comment on the report until it is released to the public. The NNSA said it could take months to remove proprietary information.
The report also estimated it would cost $17.2 billion for an alternative plutonium disposition method called downblending, according to the NNSA. Downblending requires diluting plutonium, packaging it in containers and shipping it to a repository for permanent disposal.
Clint Wolfe, the executive director of Aiken-based Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said downblending does not remove threats posed by plutonium, nor does it fulfill the U.S.-Russian agreement.
“With the MOX plant, it can no longer be used as a weapon,” he said. “Even though you put it (downblended plutonium) in a hole, you could dig it back up and use it again.”
Rep. Joe Wilson’s spokeswoman, Jennie Caven, said Congress is working to ensure the MOX program survives. The U.S. House energy and water appropriations committee has written into its budget for next year that construction will continue, she said.
“Congress looks forward to determining the true cost to complete the project, and Congressman Wilson believes MOX will be funded so that costs are not further escalated by delays in schedule,” Caven said in an e-mail.
MOX has received bipartisan support in Congress. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., showed his support for completing the facility by holding a briefing for Democratic staff members last week on MOX construction progress.
Tom Collina, the director of policy for Ploughshares Fund, a group that advocates against nuclear weapons, said the massive cost of the MOX program has diverted taxpayer money from more suitable plutonium disposition options.
The latest cost estimate shows the program is unaffordable, he said. That will lead to more calls to shut down MOX although that doesn’t guarantee the government will abandon it, he said.
“Even the most unjustifiable programs have a way of hanging around,” Collina said. “The American taxpayer is losing because its money for a program that ultimately won’t be built.”