A watchdog group eyeing federal spending at the Savannah River site, a nuclear complex in Aiken, S.C., is again raising concerns about the long-delayed, $7.7-billion Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project after the contractor filed a "routine" request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 10-year construction extension.
"The request to extend the construction license of the MOX plant is nothing short of an admission that the project as conceived has turned into a costly failure," Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, said in a press statement. "A 10-year license extension could mean that the MOX project will just slowly drag on with no clear schedule and that the endless costs overruns will continue."
Bryan Wilkes, CB&I/Areva MOX Services spokesman, called the request "routine communication" with the NRC, noting that the agency grants extensions in 10-year increments. Agency spokesman Joey Ledford concurred that the request was considered normal in light of the looming 2015 deadline.
"This is simply to allow construction to continue," CB&I/Areva's Wilkes told ENR. "It does not mean construction will continue for 10 years." Asked to provide a completion target, however, Wilkes declined comment.
If the NRC approves the request, the end date for construction would extend to March 2025. According to Ledford, however, if the agency takes no official action to approve the extension, the contractor could automatically continue with construction past March 2015.
In spite of the watchdog group's latest protests over the troubled contract's ballooning costs—and the Obama administration's attempts to mothball MOX for the same reasons—continuing congressional support for the plutonium-processing facility could keep construction moving forward, despite its indefinite cost and budget scenarios.
Originally estimated at $4 billion, construction began in 2007, with completion originally set for 2016. The National Nuclear Security Administration has not updated the project's status, but public officials have estimated construction to be 60% to 65% complete. Also, Dept. of Energy officials have indicated the facility would need more than $600 million annually to fund operations, says Clements.
CB&I/Areva also made no mention of a new construction schedule in its extension request. As justification for the request, the contractor cited the facility's "first of a kind" nature; a shortage of qualified construction workers and vendors; and, ironically, lower-than- expected annual funding.
In response to questions from ENR, an NNSA spokesman stated, "Construction is ongoing as we await full congressional action on the FY 2015 budget."
So far, both the House and Senate have approved funding for the MOX project's continuing construction. Though a final spending bill has yet to be finalized, the House approved $345 million for project construction, while the Senate's version provides $400 million.