The National Nuclear Security Administration will begin shutting down Savannah River Site’s mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility while it assesses alternative ways to dispose of plutonium.
In recent years, the Obama administration has slowed funding for the MOX project that has cost taxpayers $3.9 billion on so far, according to the NNSA. Cost estimates for the program’s life cycle had risen to $30 billion.
The administration said in its fiscal 2015 budget proposal released Tuesday that a yearlong review of the MOX program signaled a need for quicker, more cost-effective methods to dispose of surplus Russian and U.S. weapons-grade plutonium.
“A review of this approach has determined that the MOX fuel approach is significantly more expensive than planned and it is not viable within the (fiscal year)2015 funding levels,” according to the budget proposal summary. “The Department of Energy is developing alternative approaches to plutonium disposition and will engage with stakeholders to determine a viable alternative. As a result, the MOX project will be placed in cold standby while an alternative approach is determined.”
The MOX plant – which is about 60 percent complete with a current workforce of about 1,800 – would be the first of its kind in the U.S. to create commercial nuclear fuel from weapons-grade plutonium and represents an international nonproliferation effort.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office said that the project was more than three years behind its 2016 completion deadline and that construction costs were revised from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion.
Resuming the program after a cold standby would require a significant cost reduction, the NNSA said Tuesday in a media briefing. Other options for plutonium disposition will be analyzed in the coming 12 to 18 months.
“What we mean by (cold standby) is that we would perform activities associated with protecting the facility and equipment from elements and ensuring they are maintained,” said Anne Harrington, the deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.
“We will protect the investment should the project be restarted or used for something different,” Harrington said.
Construction began on the 600,000-square-foot facility in 2007.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Tuesday that the administration was committed to the 2000 U.S.-Russia agreement to dispose of 68 metric tons of surplus plutonium but that MOX costs had spiraled out of control.
“We have a task force that’s been working at this very hard for the past nine months. They are continuing to work with contractors to see if we can get a substantial cost reduction,” Moniz said.
Of the $1.6 billion proposed for the NNSA’s nonproliferation efforts in the president’s budget, $221 million was allotted to shutter the MOX facility. Cuts to MOX represented more than half of nonproliferation’s 20 percent funding reduction, Moniz said.
MOX construction received $452.7 million in fiscal 2012, $487.7 million under a 2013 continuing resolution and $343.5 million in the spending bill passed in January.
Tom Clements, a critic of the MOX project and an adviser for the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, said the proposal was overdue.
“We have long called on DOE to abandon the mismanaged MOX project and implement viable disposition alternatives, and this request finally gets DOE on the right track,” Clements said.
Some South Carolina lawmakers who have long backed the MOX project blasted the Obama administration for cutting its funding.
“(The president’s) decision to dramatically reduce funding for the MOX program, to a point that raises serious questions about its viability, represents a fundamental breach of trust with the residents of South Carolina,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican.
Republican Rep. Joe Wilson said escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia underscore the need for nuclear nonproliferation.
“The president is failing to uphold vital nonproliferation agreements and ongoing environment cleanup missions by essentially terminating MOX at the Savannah River Site,” Wilson said. “This project plays an integral role in honoring international agreements with Russia.”