The Project On Government Oversight is pleased to note that in the President’s FY 2015 budget, released this week, a Department of Energy billion-dollar boondoggle has been put on “cold-standby.” This particular boondoggle would be the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication (MOX) Facility at the Savannah River Nuclear Site in South Carolina.
The MOX facility was designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for U.S. commercial nuclear reactors as part of a diplomatic deal with Russia. The budget for the whole project was originally $1.6 billion with an operational date sometime in 2007. But costs have steadily gone up and up as the completion date gets moved again and again. Almost one year ago the Government Accountability Office released a report stating that the cost had risen to $7.7 billion and operations would not begin until November 2019, twelve years after the initially planned start date.
A confidential study recently conducted by the Energy Department reports that yet another cost increase may have been the final nail in the coffin for MOX. The construction costs alone could be as high at $10 billion over the next five years, while operations costs could be an additional $34 billion over the next 15 years.
This astronomical cost increase, in addition to the $4 billion that has already been spent on construction of the facility, is all for a project that doesn’t have a single customer.
Shaw AREVA MOX Services, a private company running the program for the Energy Department, lost its only customer in 2008 and hasn’t been able to find even a single replacement. This may be because the use of mixed oxide fuel in certain reactors will require years of safety testing, particularly due to concerns about the use of the fuel in the boiling water reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.
Thankfully, it seems that the White House won’t stand for this waste and mismanagement any longer. After a year-long review of the plutonium disposition program, the White House has decided to provide only enough funding for the project to keep it in “cold-standby” while the National Nuclear Security Administration looks into alternative strategies and technologies.
POGO has been calling for action on this subject since 2001 when our investigators met with members of the White House national security team to discuss plutonium disposition options and to try to dissuade the team from the MOX option. In 2008 we wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman expressing our concerns about a lack of oversight on costs and quality of the work. We, along with organizational allies, have also worked on letters to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and to President Obama. Last year, we even called our good government advocates to action, asking them to tell Congress to cut funding for this costly facility.
We are pleased to see that the administration is finally taking note and looking into cost effective strategies for plutonium disposition that will maintain our diplomatic deal with Russia without putting the country further into debt for a facility no one needs or wants. We hope that Members of Congress will take note when developing their budgets for the upcoming year.