The findings were shared in testimony Wednesday by David C. Trimble, the GAO’s natural resources and environment director, who aired a series of concerns before the House Energy and Water Subcommittee.
The MOX plant, part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nonproliferation effort, 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.
Trimble’s report said the U.S. Department of Energy has forecast that the plant’s $4.9 billion cost will increase to $7.7 billion and the start of operations will be delayed from October 2016 to November 2019.
“Specifically, DOE is evaluating a project baseline change proposal prepared by NNSA’s contractor,” the report said, referring to Shaw AREVA MOX Services. “The cost increase and schedule delay will not be known until DOE completes its review of the contractor’s proposal and DOE’s project oversight office completes an independent cost estimate of the project.”
The report identified several factors that could affect cost and schedule, including inadequately designed components such as gloveboxes used for handling plutonium; not understanding the ability of the nuclear industry to fabricate and deliver nuclear-quality components on time; effectiveness of project reviews; and changes in project scope.
One such change in scope, the report stated, was a decision to cancel a planned Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility in which plutonium “pits” from nuclear warheads would be processed into powdered feedstock for the MOX plant.
“NNSA canceled the facility in January 2012 and, instead, decided to meet its feedstock requirements through existing facilities at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site, including potentially the MOX facility,” the GAO said, adding that the government spent $730 million designing the facility before canceling it.
The GAO will continue to follow and report on the project, Trimble’s report said.
Robert Middaugh, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the numbers shared in the GAO report are not yet final.
“NNSA has received a baseline change proposal from MOX Services, the prime contractor for the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, which it is currently evaluating,” Middaugh said. “Until the new baseline is validated and approved the number is subject to change. We expect to complete our review of baseline change proposal by the end of the fiscal year.”
Critics of the MOX program said the GAO’s findings are a cause to cut funding for the project.
“This huge cost increase is more justification to pull the plug on a MOX project that is totally out of control,” said Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.