The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a one-year funding extension for a Savannah River Site factory that converts weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel, teeing up what could become a heated political battle over money for the embattled project.
The legislation, part of a massive defense spending bill that passed 70-27, authorizes the U.S. Energy Department to spend $345 million in fiscal year 2016 to “carry out construction and project support activities” at SRS’ mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility, which is nearly 70 percent complete and employs about 1,800 workers.
The Senate vote sent the defense bill to President Obama, who has threatened to veto the legislation because it uses a war-fund account to skirt congressional budget caps.
Congressional leaders believe wide-ranging support for the bill could make it harder for the Obama administration to kill MOX, but objections to the facility still remain as a slew of reports made public this year show the project is years behind schedule and $6 billion over its original budget.
“This would be a hostage taking, and we are already the hostage,” Rep. Jim Cook, D-Tenn., said in a hearing held on the MOX project after the Senate vote. “We would have no leverage at all in this situation.”
Cook was reacting to testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that if the U.S. decided to complete MOX construction, the contractor overseeing the project would be allowed to negotiate a new contract.
Construction of MOX, which began in 2007, was initially projected to cost $1.7 billion in 1999, but that was revised in 2013 to $7.7 billion and could be growing by the day to satisfy a 2000 treaty the U.S. signed with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
In April, an initial report by Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center based in California, found it would cost about $47.5 billion to finish building and operate the MOX facility by 2044.
Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency overseeing the MOX project, testified before the House that the second phase of the Aerospace study has been completed and provided to Congress.
Klotz suggested that the report reiterates Aerospace’s original findings that shipping down-blended plutonium to a New Mexico nuclear waste repository for burial could save the federal government nearly $30 billion.
“In this report, Aerospace concluded that dilution and disposal in a repository is the least complex in design and operations and has the lowest cost-risk,” he said.
In response to the Aerospace findings, a report by High Bridge Associates, a nuclear construction consulting firm retained by the board of governors of CB&I Areva MOX Services, found plant completion is the lowest
cost alternative and best solution.
If standard practices were used, the report concluded, the total estimated project costs of MOX ($19 billion) would have been nearly comparable at $20 billion for down-blending.
The Red Team, a group of industry experts assembled by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, agreed with High Bridge’s findings that Aerospace’s study “was skewed” but said that even the worst-case scenario for down-blending could save
the U.S. upwards of $400 million than the best MOX approach.
On the question of whether the MOX approach is worth the extra cost and risk it entails, the Red Team did not formally assess the “external” benefits, said Thomas Mason, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who assembled the group.
“These benefits, however, might reasonably include preservation of jobs and lower regional unemployment, positive overall economic impact to the region, enhancement to the domestic credibility of the nuclear industry … and revenue arising from MOX fuel sales of up to $1 billion,” Mason said.
He said a much less costly and less risky approach to meeting the nation’s obligations for disposing excess plutonium can be implemented, but added that the choice between MOX and down-blending “represents both a value judgment and a political decision.”
Moving forward, the spending bill requires Moniz’s 2017 budget proposal to Congress to contain a cost analysis for the project that shows how much has been and will be spent in the future for construction, design, procurement and site preparation activities.
It also limits him to spending no more than $5 million of MOX funds for fiscal year 2016 to “conduct an analysis of alternative options” for carrying out the U.S. plutonium disposition program.
“I would like to emphasize that regardless of the chosen path forward, the Red Team believes that it is vitally important to make a decision as soon as possible and secure consistent funding to prevent further degradation of the plutonium disposition program,” Mason said.