MOX plant at Savannah River Site will cost $12 billion more than initially thought

Aerial view of the mixed oxide fuel factory at the Savannah River Site
Aerial view of the mixed oxide fuel factory at the Savannah River Site

AIKEN, SC From an upper floor in the federal government’s hulking nuclear fuel plant, construction managers pointed at a section of concrete wall they said was installed incorrectly.

The wall had to be redone so key electrical work could be constructed inside the partially finished building. A few floors down, federal officials nodded at sloping pipes that didn’t meet specifications and unused equipment that had been ordered but never needed.

Those shortcomings are among a multitude of problems that today show how hard it has been to build a mixed oxide fuel factory at the Savannah River Site, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The fuel factory, known commonly as the MOX plant, is $12 billion over budget and potentially decades away from completion, according to the latest estimates, released Thursday by DOE officials. Workers began building the plant in 2007.

It was originally envisioned as a jobs producer and a way to convert deadly weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial power plants.

“We are confident it is not feasible in this environment,’’ associate deputy energy secretary John MacWilliams said of the MOX project. “We are going down a road spending money on something that will never happen. Unfortunately, that seems to us to be a very large waste of taxpayer money.’’

Federal officials are moving to scrap the secretive project in favor of another way to neutralize plutonium. The U.S. and Russia have a deal to each get rid of 34 metric tons of plutonium they no longer need. Plutonium not only is toxic enough to cause cancer, but it is a key ingredient in atomic weapons that officials fear could fall into the hands of terrorists if it is not processed through a MOX plant or alternative methods.

Whether the MOX plant is abandoned in favor of another plutonium disposal method could depend on the presidential election and whether Congress agrees to go along with the DOE’s plan. Key South Carolina politicians want to continue the project to provide jobs and comply with the Russian agreement.

During a briefing and rare tour of the plant for reporters on Thursday, energy officials said the MOX project was supposed to cost under $5 billion. But it already has cost nearly $5 billion and the total cost estimate has risen to $17 billion. The latest estimate is based on a soon-to-be released study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Over the life of the project, taxpayers could be charged $30 billion to $50 billion, or about $1 billion annually, officials said. The project was originally supposed to be ready for operation this year, but now could take until 2048 at the current pace, MacWilliams said.

DOE officials said employees have had to redo work at the facility because of design mistakes. In other cases, contractors have done such a poor job that they had to tear out shoddy work and fix the problems, Department of Energy officials said.

The main contractor on the project, CB&I Areva MOX Services, said the amount of work that has been redone has not been significant. And it says the project is about 70 percent complete. Federal officials disputed that, saying no more than 27 percent of the MOX project is completed.

For now, the MOX site remains filled with about 2,000 workers in hardhats and vests. Rising five floors from the ground, the MOX plant is essentially a shell made of concrete. Much of the work is being done inside the plant now. But things may change if the DOE gains approval for what it says is a less-complicated and less-expensive way to neutralize plutonium.

The effort involves blending excess weapons grade plutonium with a powdery substance to render the plutonium unusable for nuclear weapons. The mixed material would then be sealed in thick metal canisters and shipped to an underground salt cavern in New Mexico for permanent disposal.

Instead of an industrial process like that in the MOX plant, blending the material relies on workers in heavy gloves who stand outside a sealed glass area. Reaching through the glass with the gloves, they mix plutonium with the dusty material. The blended material then is put in cans, sealed tightly and prepared for shipment off the site.

The government plans to send about 6 metric tons from SRS to New Mexico by using the blending process. Records indicate that would get rid of about half the plutonium now stored at SRS. Plutonium from nuclear weapons sites around the country has been stockpiled at SRS, a 310-square mile weapons complex near Aiken.

Moving the material off of SRS could mollify concerns in South Carolina that the plutonium could be left there forever. The failure to build the plant or move the material out of the state sparked a lawsuit by Attorney General Alan Wilson earlier this year.

“The administration’s position .... is that we should move to this alternate method of disposal, which is much, much cheaper,’’ MacWilliams said, noting that the blending process “will result in getting plutonium out of your state decades sooner, and which has really no significant technical risk, unlike the MOX facility.’’

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham , a MOX booster, said the alternate plan has not been fully screened and it remains unclear whether all of the plutonium to be neutralized would be suitable for disposal in New Mexico. The South Carolina Republican noted that Russian president Vladimir Putin has voiced concern about not building the plant.

“DOE’s short-sighted efforts to kill MOX have allowed Russian President Putin – who is no friend of the United States and our foreign policy objectives – to claim the high ground,’’ Graham’s office said. “It’s a shame the Obama Administration’s recent words and actions on MOX have unnecessarily harmed our nation’s long-time leadership role when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation.’’

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson’s office also disputed the DOE’s assertion that the MOX plant is nowhere near complete.

“Despite constantly receiving inflated cost-estimates from opponents that use contrived data, measurable progress on the MOX facility is clear and it is in the interest of the American people to complete it,’’ according to a statement from the South Carolina Republican’s office. “There is no viable alternative to completing MOX.’’

The MOX plant has been on the drawing board for parts of two decades. Under the plan, plutonium from nuclear weapons sites from across the country would be sent to SRS for conversion to MOX fuel. The plutonium-blended fuel would then be sold or given to commercial nuclear power plants for use in making energy. No utilities have agreed to take the MOX plutonium fuel, instead relying on traditional uranium fuel.