Oversight agency explores Department of Energy's MOX management

A government oversight agency wants to determine whether delays and cost increases at Savannah River Site’s MOX project might have been avoided if planners had completed design work before issuing cost and completion schedules.

In a July 24 report to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, officials with the Government Accountability Office shared observations on the U.S. Department of Energy’s management challenges.

Among the projects cited was the National Nuclear Security Administration’s mixed oxide plant in South Carolina, where construction costs were revised from $4.9 billion to more than $7.7 billion this year, with a three-year completion delay.

“According to NNSA officials and the contractor for the MOX facility, inadequately designed critical system components, such as the gloveboxes to be used for handling plutonium and the infrastructure needed to support these gloveboxes, are among the primary reasons for the proposed cost increase and schedule delay,” the GAO said.

Although the NNSA has a policy of setting cost and schedule baselines only after completing 90 percent of design work, that guidance was issued in 2012 – several years after cost and schedules were issued for the MOX project.

“As part of our ongoing review of NNSA’s Plutonium Disposition Program, we are evaluating whether such guidance would have been useful for NNSA to apply to the MOX facility, as well as the potential impact this guidance might have had on mitigating cost increases and schedule delays,” the GAO report said.

The MOX project, designed to blend plutonium from surplus nuclear bombs into commercial reactor fuel, is under scrutiny from congressional budget writers because of its spiraling costs.

The DOE’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal calls for reduced funding for the construction program, which officials have said could lead to layoffs for as many as 500 of the project’s 1,900 workers.

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