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MOX Costs Spiral Further Out of Control

As government agencies across the spectrum struggle with even tighter budgets and forced cuts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has revealed in a new report that the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication (MOX) Facility at the Savannah River Site has yet again dramatically increased in cost, bringing the current price tag up to $7.7 billion. This new price tag is $700 million more than the GAO reported just last month.

The MOX facility has been cause for concern for years. It was designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for use in nuclear energy reactors. The facility was expected to cost $1.6 billion and be operational in three years. Today the program is ten years behind schedule and $6 billion over budget—an increase of 381 percent. But even $7.7 billion won’t be the total cost to the taxpayer if the Department of Energy (DOE) decides to continue pursuing the MOX mission.

A week ago, a local Savannah River Site expert and the Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, Tom Clements, calculated a life-cycle cost estimate for the MOX program. Neither DOE nor the National Nuclear Security Administration has released an updated official performance or cost baseline for the project since 2008. Thus, Clements has developed his own estimate incorporating not only the construction costs for the facility but also:

a host of other expenses, including administrative buildings and administrative costs, yearly MOX plant operating costs, MOX plant start-up costs, plutonium feedstock preparation, a facility to treat MOX waste (Waste Solidification Building) and waste disposal costs, payment to utilities to use MOX fuel in their nuclear reactors and decommissioning of facilities.

This unofficial estimate puts the whole price tag for the MOX facility at just about $22.11 billion. Though this is not an official number, Clements’ work is exhaustive and he requests, as does POGO, that the DOE and NNSA respond with their own life-cycle cost estimate.

The 381 percent cost increase as well as the $22.11 billion life-cycle cost estimate is all for a facility that doesn’t have even a single customer.

The project’s contractor, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, lost its contract with Duke Energy in 2008. Since then it has not been able to find another nuclear power company interested in purchasing the fuel that would be produced at the facility. Furthermore, the use of the fuel in certain reactors will still require years of safety testing, particularly in light of concerns raised about the use of MOX fuel in the boiling water reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.

Now is the time to cut funding to this nuclear bridge to nowhere. The adjacent photo shows quite clearly that the roof of the facility is finally complete. There has never been a better time to halt the MOX project and reassess its mission. In February, POGO learned of a plan to cut funding to MOX by 75 percent, though over a billion dollars would still be allocated over the next five years to finish construction and explore alternative means of plutonium disposition. Now that the cost has increased yet again and the roof is finished, it’s time for funding to MOX to be cut 100 percent.

Despite what some Members of Congress say, continuing to fund this multi-billion-dollar boondoggle is unacceptable. It’s time to close the door on MOX and look into alternative plutonium disposition plans.