MOX facility faces big changes

Contractors building the $4.86 billion mixed oxide fuel facility at Savannah River Site were warned this week that high turnover among its professional staffers and a lack of competition among material suppliers could increase the project's cost and affect its completion schedule.

In a discussion of "significant changes" that have occurred with the project since last year, the National Nuclear Security Administration's fiscal year 2012 budget request stated that Shaw AREVA MOX Services is experiencing "significantly greater than expected" personnel losses from the expansion of the U.S. commercial nuclear industry.

"Over 15 percent of the project's engineering and technical personnel have left for other nuclear industry jobs in the last year with pay increases of at least 25 percent," the report said. "Finding experienced replacements has become difficult and expensive."

The MOX complex, scheduled to open in 2016, is designed to dispose of plutonium from dismantled nuclear bombs by blending small amounts of the material with uranium to make nuclear fuel for commercial power reactors.

Because of the complexity of equipment and construction standards, the same nuclear professionals needed for the MOX project are in high demand for other nuclear construction programs, such as Southern Nuclear's Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga.

When engineers are hired away from the MOX project, the report said, replacement workers are being hired without the required nuclear experience and must be trained -- at additional expense -- before they can be authorized to perform work under federal Nuclear Quality Assurance standards.

The MOX project also faces potentially higher costs because of difficulties in finding suppliers and subcontractors capable of building and installing equipment that meets federal standards.

"It has been necessary to station dedicated MOX facility quality assurance and engineering personnel at supplier and subcontractor locations to train personnel and ensure fabricated equipment and installations meet (federal nuclear) requirements," the report said. "The lack of experienced nuclear equipment suppliers has in turn resulted in a lack of competition for the work and higher than expected bids as the inexperienced suppliers are uncertain how much effort is required to meet those requirements."

As a remedy to situations in which qualified suppliers and subcontractors are unavailable, too expensive or so inexperienced that they present unacceptable risk, the U.S. Department of Energy has authorized Shaw AREVA MOX Services to "self-perform" a limited amount of fabrication and installation.

So far, the personnel and supplier issues are being contained through the use of special funds set aside for such programs, but those resources are limited.

"The MOX project has allocated contingency and management reserve funds when needed to address these issues and to mitigate overall project risks," the budget report said. "While allocation of reserves funds has remained within overall planning limits, the project team must continue to actively manage these issues in the future to mitigate any potential cost and schedule impacts."

The project remains on schedule and within budget, and workers have installed more than 76,000 tons of reinforced concrete and 15,000 tons of steel rebar, in addition to completing 11 auxiliary buildings in the MOX complex. All that, the report said, was completed while achieving more than 4 million "safe work" hours.

Karen Randall, the communications manager for Shaw AREVA MOX Services, said she could not answer questions about the report Tuesday because she did not have enough time to get approval.