The mixed-oxide fuel fabrication project at Savannah River Site has had “very significant cost overruns and delays” and should be replaced with an alternative method, a top Department of Energy official said Thursday.
John MacWilliams, the department’s associate deputy secretary, said during a video teleconference with reporters that a “dilution and disposal” approach is far less complex than the MOX method and would save taxpayers plenty of money.
The MOX project came out of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dispose of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The material would be enough to create about 17,000 nuclear weapons.
MacWilliams said the lifecycle cost of MOX ranges from $30 billion to $50 billion, and could exceed that top figure. The plant was supposed to be operational by Jan. 1 of this year, but some reports estimate the plant might not start up until 2048, MacWilliams said.
“It will take roughly a billion dollars a year to build it and then to operate it for the life of the facility,” MacWilliams said. “But in this budget environment we are in, it is not conceivable to us that there’s a billion dollars a year starting now and going on for decades to accomplish this.”
Those figures cited by MacWilliams come from a report that is expected to be released soon by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s a far cry from the initial projected cost of $1.7 billion, which rose to $4.9 billion and was further revised to $7.7 billion in 2013. The latest study says that the projected cost is $17.2 billion.
The Obama administration wants to terminate the MOX project, but it enjoys bipartisan support and has been a major economic boost for the area, with roughly 2,000 workers employed.
The “dilution and disposal” method touted by MacWilliams would essentially mix the plutonium with an inhibitor substance, seal it in a canister and then ship it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for burial. Much of the work would be done in “gloveboxes.”
However, WIPP stopped taking shipments after an underground truck caught fire in 2014. That has meant a delay in shipments of nuclear waste material from SRS.
Reaction from South Carolina’s congressional delegation argued to keep MOX alive.
“There is no viable alternative to completing MOX,” U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said in a statement. “WIPP is not open, and there is no timeline for it being completed – leaving South Carolina as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. Additionally, MOX remains the only means of honoring our nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the Russian Federation. Tensions between our nations are currently high – this is not the time to renegotiate a weapons treaty with Putin.”
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., criticized the Energy Department plan.
“There remain huge problems with DOE’s proposed plan to scrap MOX in favor of WIPP in New Mexico,” Bishop wrote in an email. “Simply put, DOE’s plan has not been fully vetted, does not have validated cost estimates, has numerous unanswered technical questions and leads to the permanent orphaning of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium – enough for thousands of warheads. This is why Sen. Graham continues to pursue all the tools at his disposal to ensure that construction of the MOX program proceeds until all contingencies are favorably resolved.”
Funding for MOX for 2017 has not been decided. The Energy Department recommended in February a budget of $270 million, which would be used to stop construction and start closure of the site.
Also Thursday, Douglas J. McCarron, the president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, sent a letter to Democractic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The union asked Clinton to persuade the administration to not terminate the program for fiscal year 2017 until Congress has a chance to weigh in.
“We would like to see the administration work with Congress to find a viable and fiscally responsible path forward to completion,” McCarron wrote.