Photo courtesy SRS Watch
The $7.7-billion MIxed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project has experienced a nearly $3-billion increase in construction costs, and is estimated to be three years behind its original schedule.

The federal agency overseeing the $7.7-billion Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in Aiken, S.C., violated a "basic principle" when it approved the plutonium disposal facility for construction despite its "immature" design, according to a U.S. Dept. of Energy audit.

Although a "number of factors" eventually contributed to a nearly $3-billion increase from the project's initial $4.8-billion price tag, the DOE report indicates that the National Nuclear Security Administration's initial 2007 estimate was flawed from the outset—and that NNSA officials had concerns about cost escalations at the time.

In recommending approval of an initial project baseline in 2007, for instance, the NNSA cited a 2006 independent review as evidence of its readiness to proceed to construction—although that review raised concerns about the completeness of design.

An NNSA associate administrator "expressed the belief that incomplete project planning could lead to an unintended 'design-build-design' process similar to that experienced by other major [DOE] projects," a July 2006 memo cited.

The audit also found that the NNSA only reviewed the design of the MOX facility structure, and not "integral systems, structures and components." Moreover, DOE found that "NNSA and [contractor] MOX Services did not intend to conduct a final design review … and instead chose to conduct design reviews in stages."

The report states: "Project construction is to begin when design and engineering activities are essentially complete and final design review and environmental and safety criteria are met. The timing of initiating construction of the MOX facility violated this basic principle."

Originally set for completion in 2016, the project's latest schedule estimates a 2019 finish.

In March, the Obama administration announced plans to put the facility into "cold standby" at the end of fiscal 2014.

Current House and Senate versions of a defense spending bill call for MOX construction to continue in 2015. The House bill authorizes $201 million for MOX, while the Senate provides $341 million.