Continued construction and eventual operation of the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River site in South Carolina is not viable at the current funding levels, according to a high-level "red team" report prepared for the U.S. Energy Dept.

The report, obtained and released on Aug. 20 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, was prepared for DOE by personnel from agency laboratories, the Tennessee Valley Authority and several contractors, including from Bechtel. Red-team reports are commissioned to challenge status quo approaches in the federal government.

The report says that, for the facility to be viable, Congress would need to appropriate double the current funding level of about $400 million to $800 million a year until construction is complete as well as during the multiyear operations phase of the facility, which is intended to convert weapons-grade plutonium to fuel for commercial nuclear plants.

The current proposed congressional authorization for the plant would provide $345 million for construction for the upcoming fiscal year.

The report suggests that a better option would be to dilute and dispose of the 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground facility in New Mexico. That option could be completed for about $400 million a year; it also could be done more quickly and would be less risky than the MOX option. The report notes that such "downblending" and storage of non-weapons-grade plutonium already has been performed successfully.

Report authors acknowledge one problem with the plan: Following two accidents in 2014, WIPP is currently shut down. However, they are confident the facility will resume operation.

In late July, DOE delayed the original March 2016 re-opening date of WIPP until an unspecified date in 2016.

According to WIPP, the delay is to implement DOE’s more rigorous standards for site-specific documented safety analyses and resolve problems with the contractor’s oversight of the procurement and quality-assurance processes for the manufacture and delivery of an interim ventilation system.

Nuclear Waste Partnership, led by the URS Corp. unit of AECOM, with Babcock & Wilcox and AREVA, is the primary WIPP contractor.

WIPP currently also does not have enough space for the waste and would have to be expanded to hold it, according to the report. It adds that contractors CB&I, AREVA and MOX Services say the MOX facility is about 67% complete and needs about $1.5 billion in work. The federal project director, however, disputes that number, in part because of inadequate specification of construction sequencing and potential significant rework, according to the report.

About $4.5 billion has been spent and 1,800 contractors hired.

The report notes that MOX Services is mitigating some of the risk of rework through an extensive testing program aimed at critical systems and components. MOX Services says it is completing about 3% to 5% of its remaining discrete work on the facility each year at current funding levels.

The report notes that one of the problems plaguing the project is an “antagonistic relationship” between the federal project director and the contractor.

The report says there are “no obvious silver bullets” to reduce the life-cycle cost of the MOX approach.