Photo Courtesy of Shaw Areva MOX Services
Official cost estimates and completion dates for the Savannah River MOX site haven't changed since 2008, but a House Appropriations Committee report says costs are climbing and schedule is slipping.

Despite five years of high labor turnover, difficulty securing nuclear- grade material and routine cost escalations, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication, or MOX, facility, at the Savannah River site is still officially budgeted at $4.8 billion and scheduled for completion by 2016—the same cost figure and date given by the Energy Dept. since 2007.

Unofficially, however, DOE expects costs for the MOX facility, presently under construction by Shaw Areva MOX Services at the DOE site in South Carolina, will rise $600 million to $900 million, according to a FY 2013 report from the House Appropriations Committee. DOE sources also confirm to the authors of the committee report that the project is behind schedule by months, if not years. Other news reports say projected costs could rise by as much as $2 billion.

Under an agreement with Russia, the U.S. agreed to build the MOX facility to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by fabricating it into MOX fuel for use in civilian nuclear reactors. After the facility was first proposed in 1999, DOE estimated it would cost $1.4 billion and be completed in 2004. Construction did not begin until 2007, and cost projections are still climbing.

Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey (D), in a Jan. 14 letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, demanded an updated cost on the facility by Feb. 15. Markey, House and Senate appropriators and anti-nuclear activists have been increasingly vocal about the project's delays and its projected ballooning costs.

Those concerns are likely to increase even further later this year when DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is expected to give final approval to project scope modifications. The major change would eliminate construction of a $4-billion to $6-billion pit disassembly building proposed at the Savannah River site (SRS); instead, it would add more capability—and likely cost—to the MOX facility and at SRS's existing H-Canyon and K-Area to handle pit disassembly and conversion of surplus plutonium. NNSA has issued a draft environmental impact statement for the modifications, and a final EIS and decision are imminent.

A report from the General Accounting Office said the modified plan to disassemble the plutonium pits in existing buildings at the SRS site could further drive up costs because the project would require construction within an existing, secure, operating facility in K-Area. Contractors would excavate material from existing walls and floors in the K-Area facility to create space to install piping and utilities. NNSA must move quickly to synch the modified configuration with work already under way. Shaw Areva MOX already has begun to close its construction openings at the MOX facility, according to firm spokesman Bryan Wilkes. The process should be complete in about two years, he adds.

Meanwhile, House and Senate appropriators are concerned about expected operating costs for the facility, which have risen to an expected $499 million a year from an estimated $156 million a year in 2011.

"The source of this cost growth is still not entirely clear, but according to information provided to the Committee by the NNSA, part of the growth is due to cost estimating errors such as not accounting for normal escalation factors," the appropriations committee said in its report. Shaw Areva MOX has the exclusive contract to operate the facility.

NNSA, DOE, Areva, Shaw and Shaw Areva MOX have been silent about any cost and schedule changes. Wilkes acknowledged that, officially, costs have not been changed.

However, NNSA, in a question-and-answer document about the MOX facility, acknowledges there have been challenges to the cost and schedule because of difficulty in identifying suppliers and contractors able to work to the nuclear standard. NNSA also says its turnover has been higher than expected because four new nuclear reactors are being built nearby. In its report, the GAO highlights the 10,000 tons of below-grade rebar, 4,000 tons of which were installed in the facility. While it was determined the lower-grade rebar didn't affect the safety of the facility, it had a "major effect on the overall schedule," GAO says.