Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 2, 2014

MOX Construction at SRS Faces Suspension in Sequestration According to Exchange Monitor

By Thomas Clements | Jan 31, 2013
Photo by: High Flyer Roof it and stop it?  In this late December 2012 photo of the plutonium fuel (MOX) plant under construction near Aiken, South Carolina, it can be seen that a section of the roof in the southwestern corner remains to be put in place.  Once this section of roof is in place the facility will be in condition for construction to be halted and the building protected from the elements, on stand-by for any possible future use.  The issue of stopping construction after a roof was over the MOX plant was raised in Congress two years ago and the matter is ripe again as a roof will be completed in March (according to an NNSA official).  The MOX plant construction appears to be poised to be another Superconducting Super Collider debacle - lots of tax- payer money wasted for political reasons for a misguided project difficult to manage and complete.

NNSA/AREVA MOX Boondoggle:  Farce, Satire or Simply Tragedy?

Time for self-proclaimed fiscally conservative groups like "Heritage Action" to sink their fangs into the MOX beast? Can they get their beast on for the essential work at hand?

Are soaring costs for the MOX plant construction and life-cycle costs - estimated to be near $18 billion - being covered up by NNSA and AREVA?

Op-ed in Knoxville (Tennessee) News:  “TVA should jettison plutonium project

UPDATE of February 5:  Despite additional requests, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) continues to stick with its policy not to reveal any cost aspects of MOX plant construction or the life-cycle cost of plutonium disposition, heightening concerns about a cover-up of cost for the $18-billion program.  On February 1, the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reported: "NNSA Deputy Administrator For Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Will Tobey said this week that putting MOX on hold when large cuts are imminent would have a number of advantages. “It’s a large program that would entail a fair amount of savings. And it deals with material that isn’t in need of urgent attention in terms of security,” Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told NW&M Monitor."  Public interest groups have confirmed administration interest in cutting the MOX program during sequestration.

Update of February 7:  The Hill publication reported that "The Energy Department (DOE) is considering furloughing employees to reduce costs if automatic spending cuts from sequestration occur, according to an internal memo obtained by The Hill."

See article at: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/281817-doe-considers-furloughs-as-part-of-sequestration-plan

Update of February 8:  The New Mexico congressional delegation sent a letter to President Obama asking him to name a hands-on appointee to head the NNSA and said “The NNSA has recently suffered from a series of ongoing management, security and budgetary problems and effective new leadership is needed now to restore the confidence of the public and of their representatives in Congress” and "We believe there is an opportunity now to make substantial improvement in NNSA’s management and oversight responsibilities and we urge you to nominate someone with the leadership ability to help guide the transformation."

That the MOX program has been allowed by NNSA management and Shaw AREVA MOX Services to run so far off the financial rails (and it's getting worse) underscores the request. See news release and link to the letter at:

http://www.heinrich.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=339600

Update of February 21:  Rumors persist that MOX is facing a 75%+ cut in upcoming budget requests. Estimate to finish the roof of the MOX plant, in March, is on the order of $40 million, with additional funds needed to mothball the facility and honor contracts.  An estimate of $100 million could be a ball-park figure but the rumored request of $500 million for FY2014 is far too much to suspend the project and secure the unfinished MOX building (that still has no clients for any fuel it might be able to produce).

Update of February 22:  The DOE schedule of release of NEPA documents shows that the release of the MOX Supplemental EIS has slipped again.to mid-April.   No surprise there as the project struggles on all fronts.  See February 15 NEPA schedule at: http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/KeyEISSchedule_February2013.pdf

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January 31, 2013

The Exchange Monitor Morning Briefing of January 31, 2013 reported that the plutonium fuel (MOX) program underway at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina could face a “suspension” in the event that budget sequestration goes into effect.

The Morning Briefing, published by the Nuclear Weapons & Material Monitor, states that “the Obama Administration is considering suspending the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project as an option in the event of sequestration.”

The Nuclear Weapons & Material Monitor is noted for reporting about Department of Energy (DOE) programs that that can’t be read in other media outlets.

“The soaring MOX costs stick out like a sore thumb so it’s no wonder that the $20-billion project has risen to the top of the program to be cut if sequestration kicks in,” said Tom Clements with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.  “If the debt crisis is going to be met head on, then budget-busting projects like MOX must be eliminated and less costly plutonium disposition options pursued.

“That MOX is being perpetuated simply as a jobs program for South Carolina isn’t justification enough for the tax payer to be strapped by the debt it is creating.  Fiscal conservatives should celebrate if the Obama administration is finally taking steps to rein in the run-away spending on MOX,” said Clements, a native of Georgia who has been active on SRS issue from a public-interest perspective for over 30 years. Clements holds a Masters in Forest Resources from the University of Georgia and has been engaged in nuclear policy issue on the national and international levels for over 20 years.

For more information on the mounting problems facing NNSA's MOX project, see a January 24, 2013 posting:

MOX on the Rocks: DOE Assessment of Plutonium Fuel Project at SRS Shows Chronic and Uncorrected Cost and Schedule Problems

And, this December 19 posting offers additional information:

SRS Projects in “Red Zone” Push Site Over its own Fiscal and Management Cliff; Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Leads the Way into Abyss

Also see the November 21, 2012 blog SRS Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Program to Go Cold Turkey in Lame Duck Session as Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Balks at MOX Use?

The construction of the MOX plant at SRS by Shaw AREVA MOX Service (SHAMS) has come under increasing scrutiny due to massive cost overruns and schedule delays.  The cost for the MOX plant construction was $1.8 billion in 2004 and jumped to $4.8 billion in 2008, where the estimate has been frozen.  Reports indicate that a “rebaselined” construction cost could jump $2 billion, making this program a perfect target for cutting in order to reduce the deficit.

The MOX plant is about 65% complete and the roof is expected to be finished in March 2013. (See associated photo for view of roof of MOX plant.)  It has been raised in Congress that a halt to construction would be prudent after a roof was over the facility and the walls finished, in order to protect the facility for future use (such as disposing of plutonium as waste).

Estimated yearly operating costs have soared to almost $500 million a year, meaning that over a 20-year operating life that operations alone would total around $10 billion. It is believed that the still-secret $7-billion price tag for MOX plant construction and the stunning operational cost figure have caught the attention of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) during current budget negotiations over agency budget request to soon be released for Fiscal Year 2014.

The plutonium disposition agreement - not a treaty as frequently mis-stated by NNSA officials - with Russia has helped Russia to obtain a new “breeder” reactor, the BN800*, which can produce (or “breed”) weapons-grade plutonium when operated in a certain way, and doesn't address the fact that Russia continues to stockpile reactor-grade plutonium separated from commercial spent fuel reprocessing.  That stockpile has now reached almost 50 metric tons,  according to a November 23, 2012 report  - Information Circular 549 - to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) entitled “Communication Received from the Russian Federation Concerning its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium.”

(*Due to technical issues it is unknown if the sodium-cooled BN800 will be able to start up or operate. See Der Spiegel article from September 2012 about problems facing the BN800.)

Given fatal flaws which put a stamp of tacit US approval on Russia's continued plutonium ventures, the plutonium disposition agreement serves little purpose but could be revised to reflect that the US will pursue the cheaper option to dispose of plutonium as waste.  Continued statements by MOX boosters that "Russia made us pursue MOX" reflect a false history that the US voluntarily abrogated to Russia its own decision-making rights concerning nuclear and non-proliferation policies. (When did the US willingly surrender to Russia on any other matter?)

A front-page article in The State newspaper in Columbia, SC on January 27 outlined the problems facing MOX in an article entitled “Critics fear $7 billion SRS boondoggle- Building costs soar at nuclear fuel conversion plant near Aiken.”

It has been confirmed that a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on MOX has begun, at the request of the House Energy & Water Subcommittee, which funds DOE programs. The report from the subcommittee on the Fiscal Year 2013 DOE budget states that "Due to the considerable issues surrounding the current [cost] estimates, the Committee directs the Comptroller General to investigate the existing cost estimates for completing construction, performing cold and hot startup activities, and annual facility operations. The Comptroller General is directed to report to the Committee with an assessment of the extent to which current NNSA estimates provide an accurate representation of the costs and time to complete the facility and whether those estimates adhere to good federal cost estimating standards."

On January 14, Representative Ed Markey submitted to DOE a list of key questions to DOE about costs and schedule issues with the MOX program, and DOE has until February 15 to respond.  (See news release at: "Markey Perturbed Over Problematic Plutonium Plan" )  It is believed that NNSA will attempt to continue to cover up MOX costs in the response to Representative Markey.

On January 29, a presentation entitled Fissile Materials Disposition Program Overview by Jeffrey Allison of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to a meeting of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board in Augusta, Georgia, presented no new information about the problem-plagued MOX project.  A list of burning questions about costs and schedule of the MOX project were once again ignored and left unanswered, a bumbling strategy that has not well served NNSA or Shaw AREVA MOX Services.

At the end of the day, big-spending politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Joe Wilson, both from South Carolina, may well have a lot of explaining to do as why they are choosing to drive up the national debt via their support of the bungled MOX program and why they didn't support the cheaper, quicker, safer plutonium immobilization program under development in mid-1990s but canceled shortly after George W. Bush entered office. That effort successfully maximized the cost of the plutonium disposition program while satisfying plutonium-proliferation boosters out to establish a plutonium-processing infrastructure in the U.S.

Fiscally conservative politician and groups should now aggressively go after the budget-busting MOX program now that its vulnerability has been revealed.  For example, Heritage Action, which just billed itself as “New Fangs on the Heritage Beast,” should sink those fangs into the MOX beast.  But when former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina recently took over the Heritage Foundation (and who was always a quiet backer of Senator Lindsey Graham and his support of wasteful big-government projects at the Savannah River Site),  there may have been a self-defanging related to work on the MOX issue.  Will Heritage Action and other conservative fangs now be applied liberally to the MOX beast or will the $20-billion program be once again protected by special interests who profit from a growing debt?

Strangely, in spite of the MOX plant being one of the costliest construction projects being undertaken by the federal government, a search for anything related to MOX on the Heritage Foundation website turns up nothing.  One has to wonder how fiscal conservatives can ignore the debt crisis being aided by MOX spending.  But then again, with the MOX program we may have discovered one of the big-government programs that those parading as fiscal conservatives love, right?

 

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