Broader marketing and lower natural gas prices are luring potential new clients interested in mixed oxide reactor fuel, even as federal budget cuts threaten to stall a MOX plant.
“We expect, actually, there to be more demand than the plant has capacity for,” said Kelly Trice, the president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, which is building the facility at Savannah River Site.
During a briefing last week before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Trice told NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane his company’s nuclear technology subsidiary, AREVA NP, has been employed to become a wholesaler for mixed oxide fuel.
The MOX facility, about 60 percent complete, is the cornerstone of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plan to dispose of surplus plutonium by blending it into commercial nuclear fuel.
However, the plant has become increasingly expensive and behind schedule, with construction costs recently revised from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy proposed cutting $132.7 million, or 29.3 percent, from the project’s 2014 construction budget, citing rising costs that might have rendered the plant “unaffordable.”
Despite cuts that could reduce the project workforce from 1,900 to 1,400 this fall, company officials and the department are continuing to seek clients for MOX fuel, Trice said.
“I can’t put a signed piece of paper on the table at this point, but I would tell you we’ve been negotiating with the department for some time on a master fuel contract,” he said. “That is at the point of ready-to-sign subject to these other (budget) decisions being made.”
DOE would pay for modifications that would enable commercial nuclear plants to use the MOX fuel, which further adds incentive for utilities, he said.
Other available incentives could include assistance with shipping and the transport containers and licensing to use the fuel.
One of the biggest drivers of new interest in MOX is the lower price of natural gas, he said.
“AREVA actually would tell you that they have several utilities who have come to the table and are interested,” he said.
Trice also gave a status report on construction and cited some examples of the size and scope of the MOX plant and its unique components.
“We moved about 2.5 million yards of earth to dig that hole,” he said. “The overall plant is about 25 feet underground. The base mat is 6.5 feet thick and the roof itself stands about 75 feet above ground. The roof itself is about six feet thick, to give you a feel.”
The plant will eventually house about 350 “glove boxes” that are used to store and handle nuclear material, including plutonium from dismantled warheads.
“The larger ones weigh 110,000 pounds and are 250 feet long, so about the size of a small airplane – I guess large jet in that case,” he said.
MacFarlane asked Trice about the plant’s newest projected completion date.
Trice replied that the newest date, based on funding levels, is 2019.
“The new (Energy) secretary is weighing different options, and we believe in the near term he’s going to make a decision on the path forward, and we’ll know then,” he said. “And I’m sorry I can’t give you much more than that.”