In an annual assessment to Congress on the most expensive “high-risk” federal projects, the GAO said the National Nuclear Security Administration “recently added $2 billion to the project’s cost estimate, even as the facility nears completion.”
The disclosure, which raises the plant’s cost to $6.8 billion, is the first official confirmation of a major cost increase in the project to dispose of surplus plutonium by blending it with commercial reactor fuel.
Last fall, in response to an environmental statement addressing changes in the program, environmental groups complained that updated budget figures were needed for construction and operating costs.
“The MOX plant cost estimate has been frozen at $4.8 billion for the last several years,” said the groups, which included the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.
Both the U.S. Department of Energy and the nuclear security agency have declined to provide new cost estimates, the groups said.
The MOX plant, scheduled to open in 2016 and begin fuel production in 2018, is designed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium extracted from dismantled warheads. Blending the material with uranium to make reactor fuel renders the plutonium permanently unusable for weapons.
The environmental groups cited a 2003 Energy Department forecast that the plant would be completed in 2007, with a construction cost of $1.7 billion.
Last month, a key member of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce committee, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., raised questions about the project’s cost.
“While there is near-universal agreement on the need for permanent disposal of our surplus weapons-grade plutonium, it is far from clear that the department’s current plan is the most cost-effective means of doing so,” Markey wrote in a letter to the Energy Department.
The GAO report is part of the agency’s program to focus attention on government operations it identifies as high risk because of vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency or effectiveness challenges.
Though the 275-page report mentioned the MOX project only briefly, it also noted that the agency is conducting a more specific inquiry into the program.