Savannah River MOX Plant secures 2015 funding but future of program remains in doubt

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

On 13 December 2014, the U.S. Senate approved funding for continued construction of the MOX plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The 2015 Defense Authorization Act allocated US$345 million for fiscal 2015 (a reduction from the US$360 million in fiscal 2014) and requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to stop plans for putting the plant into 'cold standby'. In March 2014 President Obama had requested US$115 million for the coming year, to secure the existing site, but halt further construction while the DOE was to review options, including alternatives to the light water reactor MOX disposition route for 34 tons of "excess" weapons plutonium.

The Act requires the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to prepare and submit to both the House and Senate appropriations committees an independently-verified lifecycle cost estimate for the option to complete construction and operate the MOX facility and the option to down blend and dispose of the 34 tons of plutonium in a repository. The NNSA estimate is to be presented to Congress within 270 days.

The future of the CB&I AREVA MOX plant and plutonium disposition program remains in doubt following years of delays, escalating costs and attempts earlier this year by the administration to effectively terminate the program. In early 2014, a DOE assessment concluded that the total lifetime cost to 2040 would be more than US$34 billion. Efforts to oppose the White House downgrading of the program and secure construction funding in the 2015 budget were led by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. However, the long standing MOX critic Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, has stated that the funds allocated under the 2015 bill fall well short of what is required, noting the MOX program would need to receive $800 million or more per year for two decades to see the project completed and operating, including the cost of plant operation, administration, waste management, plutonium oxide preparation and payment to a nuclear utility to subsidize the use of MOX fuel in commercial power reactors.

In November 2014, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Areva an extension of the construction license until 30 March 2025.