A Dept. of Energy-sanctioned report on plutonium disposition alternatives, citing uncertainties related to design and construction of the Mixed-Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility project in South Carolina, indicates shifting to a new approach would be less costly than continuing to pursue the MOX program. The report—prepared by The Aerospace Corp. for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration—estimates the life-cycle program cost of converting weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel at $47.5 billion. By comparison, downblending,  which plutonium is mixed with other materials, would cost $17.2 billion.

Chart by Aerospace Corp., for DOE/NNSA
The DOE report on plutonium disposition options estimates that at a funding level of $375 million per year, construction of the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility would complete in 2099.

Released to the public in early May, the report estimates that $9.4 billion is required to complete the MOX facility’s construction. The report further calculates that, based on historical levels of federal funding, contractors could complete construction by as early as 2043, or as late as 2099. Under construction since 2007, the MOX project—also referred to by the abbreviation MFFF—was initially slated for completion in 2016.

According to the report, Congress would need to authorize a minimum of $375 million per year, in 2014 dollars, in order for contractors to complete the project’s construction. If funding dips to $350 million per year—roughly the current level—“MFFF construction cannot be completed."

Regarding the uncertain nature of the project, the report stated: “Uncertainty in the remaining design work … results in uncertainty in the remaining construction work scope…. Uncertainty exists in the number, unit cost, and availability of specialized materials and hardware.

"The level of complexity in construction activities associated with the remaining 40-60% of the work is greater than the work accomplished to date,” the report continues, citing “finish work on plumbing systems and equipment installation that has to be done within fine tolerances and requires specialized trades skills."

Watchdogs and contractors seized upon the report’s calculations as either damning evidence or “out-of-whack” estimates, respectively.

Calling the report "another huge blow to the mismanaged MOX project,” Tom Clements of Savannah River Site (SRS) Watch stated further: "Congress must … realize that the last justifications to continue wasting money on the MOX boondoggle have ended.”

Critics leaked a portion of the report in late April. It quickly drew criticism from South Carolina Congressmen that support the project, which is located near Aiken, S.C. On April 24, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, along with Congressman Joe Wilson, issued a statement that read, in part:

"We have grave concerns with The Aerospace Corp.’s recent assessment of the cost to construct and operate the MOX Facility. Having already spent $4.4 billion on the project to achieve roughly 65% completion, we find it difficult to understand how completing and operating the project will cost another $47.5 billion."

"We vigorously disagree with the figures,” added Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for CB&I Project Services Group, the MOX project’s contractor. The NNSA report uses a range of 40-60% for current completion status, but Wilkes pegged it at "approximately 65%," adding that "progress is being made every day."

CB&I’s estimates for project completion vary significantly from the report, too, Wilkes adds.

"By our calculations, it will take additional $3.3 billion to complete the project, and it will be done in five to nine years, depending on the amount of annual funding appropriations,” he stated via email. More than $1.5 billion worth of equipment is “on site and ready to install,” Wilkes said, adding that additional expenditures “will be mostly labor costs for the duration of the project.”
Clements, of SRS Watch, counters that the report’s estimate that another $9.4 billion is needed to finish building MOX, coupled with the reported $4 billion spent to date, is in line with the cost figure of $12.3 billion that NNSA included within its FY16 budget request.

In 2014, a DOE audit report concluded that NNSA—which is overseeing the MOX project—violated basic principles when agency officials initially approved construction, despite their own reservations regarding the facility’s “immature” design and the potential for future cost escalations.

Last month, the DOE published an environmental impact statement that indicated lessening agency support for the previously preferred MOX program, by stating that “DOE has no preferred alternative for the disposition of the 13.1 metric tons (14.4 tons) of surplus plutonium.”