Appropriations committee fears MOX delays, overruns

Rising costs at the mixed oxide fuel plant under construction at Savannah River Site could erode funding reserved for other national defense priorities, according to congressional budget writers.

“Construction continues to slip behind schedule due to unanticipated complexity of the work, poor contractor performance, delays in procurements, and the inclusion of additional work scope,” said a new draft of the 2013 House Energy & Water De­velopment Appropriations bill, posted Wednesday.

The $4.8 billion MOX fuel plant, managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Energy, is the cornerstone of a plan to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads by blending the material with uranium to make commercial reactor fuel.

“There is still no fidelity on the total project costs and timeline to get the MOX facility up and running, and few details have been provided on the long term investments that will be needed to support full operating feedstock requirements,” the report said.

It also said that the department’s comptroller general has been asked to explore whether the NNSA’s cost estimates are accurate and were properly prepared.

“The Department is now reporting internally that the total project costs could be understated by as much as $600 million to $900 million, and that the project will overrun its projected completion date by months if not years,” the committee wrote, adding that the facility’s projected operating costs “are now 2.5 times the projections of just two years ago.”

The committee recommends fully funding the $388.8 million requested to continue construction for the upcoming year but suggests postponing action on other requests – totaling $152.8 million – related to early startup and advance support projects.

In a statement responding to the committee’s criticisms, the NNSA said it takes its responsibility as steward of taxpayer money seriously.

“We have fully acknowledged cost pressures on the MOX project, and have worked to balance the cost and schedule challenges,” the statement said, adding that money will be saved by a recent decision to use existing sites instead of building a new facility for disassembling plutonium pits to be made into MOX fuel.

The MOX construction project currently employs about 2,600 workers and is more than 60 percent complete. It is scheduled to open in 2016, with production of commercial fuel starting by 2018.

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