Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Cost Estimate on Useless Nuclear Facility Skyrockets

We can’t afford it, no-one wants to buy it, and The Department of Energy’s not even sure if they want it. Costs for the Energy Department’s biggest billion-dollar boondoggle, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX), could total up to $52 billion to finish construction and run the plant, according to the Nuclear Weapons Complex Monitor.

The MOX facility, located at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, has been on the Project On Government Oversight’s list of wasteful spending projects for years. It was designed to convert weapons grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors as part of a diplomatic deal with Russia. When the project was first proposed in FY2004, the estimated cost was $1.6 billion and the facility was expected to begin operations in 2007. Since then, the cost estimates for this project have increased exponentially.

In 2012, the cost estimate increased to $4.8 billion while the estimated completion date slipped by a decade to 2017. Less than a year later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the construction costs increased again to $7.7 billion. In 2013, the Energy Department also released a MOX life-cycle cost estimate, which includes construction, operating, and waste management costs, of $30 billion. Now, a recently completed study by The Aerospace Corporation, obtained by the Nuclear Weapons Complex Monitor, states that approximately $47.5 billion in “life-cycle to go” costs will be required to complete the MOX project. More than $4 billion has already been spent on construction, which is reportedly only 65 percent complete.

But this estimate is apparently from a fantasy world of unlimited Congressional appropriations. For this cost evaluation, The Aerospace Corporation assumes Congressional funding for the project at $500 million per year. This is about $150 million more than Congress has been willing to appropriate in the past. The report stated that if MOX were funded at $375 million per year it would catapult the life cycle cost up to $114 billion and delay the completion to fiscal year 2100. The Department of Energy requested $345 million in funding for the MOX building in FY2016.

What is most stunning about the continued funding for this nuclear bridge to nowhere is that it’s a project that doesn’t have a single customer.

In 2008, the contractor in charge of the MOX project, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, lost its contract with Duke Energy. Since then, Shaw AREVA hasn’t been able to find a single replacement customer interested in purchasing the MOX fuel if or when the plant is finally operational. Furthermore, the use of the fuel in certain reactors will still significant safety testing, particularly in light of concerns raised about the use of MOX fuel in the boiling water reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.

The MOX project has been on the brink of cancelation for years. The DOE even put the project on “cold-standby” in its FY2015 budget request in order to explore alternative plutonium disposition methods. Unfortunately, Congress disagreed with this decision. They allocated $300 million for the facility in the year-end spending bill and explicitly prohibited the Department to use the funds to put MOX on cold-standby.

Last year, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) called the continued funding of the MOX facility a “zombie earmark.” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) may be two of the lawmakers keeping this particular earmark alive. In 2013, Sen. Graham put a hold on the confirmation of Ernest Moniz for Secretary of Energy until Moniz answered questions about how he would handle the MOX project.

Sen. Graham has recently told The Aiken Standard that he doesn’t “believe there’s a viable alternative that’s cheaper or practical.” But there are several alternatives to the problem of plutonium disposition and some of them may be cheaper than continuing to build the MOX facility. For example, The Aerospace Corporation’s study estimated that one alternative, downblending and disposing of the weapons-grade plutonium, would cost $17.2 billion which would be significantly cheaper than completing and operating MOX.

Furthermore, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report on the plutonium disposition problem. The organization took a look at the MOX project from beginning to end, detailing several missteps along the way, and offered recommendations for alternative options.

Union of Concerned Scientists has not been the only organization raising concerns about MOX. A local Savannah River Site expert and Director of the Savannah River Site Watch, Tom Clements, has been hearing rumors about MOX construction problems for months. But it wasn’t until a tour at the Savannah River Site in March that Kevin Buchanan, an engineer for the National Nuclear Security Administration, confirmed to Clements that some of those rumors are true. Buchanan told Clements that some equipment had in fact been improperly installed and had to be removed and re-installed. He further indicated that other “legacy” problems had yet to be addressed.

With problems stacking up, and a national nuclear budget that’s tighter than ever, it’s long past time for Congress to put this zombie earmark in the ground once and for all.