Two new reports raise fundamental questions on Savannah River MOX plant

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

Two reports released in the past month raise further fundamental questions over the future of the CB&I AREVA Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

A report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), released in December 2014, provides cost estimates for the construction of the CB&I AREVA Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) could range from $8-12 billion "depending on the funding profiles," compared to the current public estimate of $7.7 billion (see also an earlier report about the projected cost increase). The cost for the MOX project was estimated at $1.1 billion in FY 2001 and was set at $2.7 billion at the time DoE signed a contract with AREVA in 2008. The report, entitled "Improving Project Management--Report of the Contract and Project Management Working Group", includes a section on the plutonium disposition MOX program as an example of the many of the problems with current DOE practice.

An independent report released on January 14, 2015, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), details a number of feasible alternatives to the MOX plan, including evidence from a previously unreleased 2006 DOE study that, if adopted, would favor cheaper, safer alternatives.

The new DOE Report summarizes a catalogue of failures as the causes of the MOX project cost escalations. These include:

  • DOE did not conduct any peer reviews prior to developing the project baseline;
  • No analysis of France's reference plants' construction costs or operations history although it provided the basis of the U.S.-MOX program; or,
  • No rigorous technology development review, risk analysis or project definition rating was carried out.
The DOE report states: "DOE and the contractors relied on the fact that similar facilities, although built decades earlier and under different regulatory, political, and industry conditions, could easily be modified and replicated in the United States. Under the DOE orders at the time, there was no requirement that the project's cost estimate be performed by an independent party."

The DOE concludes that the design of the Shaw-AREVA MOX plant was "significantly less mature" than had been reported and that design costs continued to grow, construction and procurement bids greatly exceeded estimates.

In December 2014, the Senate approved limited funding for continued construction of the MOX plant, however its future remains uncertain. According to DOE, the MOX plant is 50% complete with $4 billion having been spent to date. As the report states: "In developing a path forward for plutonium disposition, DOE is reevaluating the options identified in the early stages of the plutonium disposition program."

A public hearing, organized by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Aiken, South Carolina, on 15 January 2015, did not convince opponents of the MOX project. Savannah Rivers Site Watch stated: "Congressional appropriations for the MOX project is clearly not within the NRC's expertise or area of oversight. But, there are questions pertinent to the NRC concerning budget impacts. Given the reduced budget, have any safety-related jobs been eliminated or have construction activities been eliminated or modified which have safety impacts and are any short cuts being taken to avoid further delays to any project schedule (if such a schedule actually exists)?"

The UCS report, entitled "Excess Plutonium Disposition", provides details on how the DOE could resurrect an option considered years ago to utilize existing facilities at SRS to "immobilize" the plutonium in ceramic discs and condition them together with vitrified, highly radioactive waste -- waste converted into a glass form -- as a security barrier to theft. The DOE stopped pursuing this promising approach, called "can-in-canister," in 2002 to focus exclusively on MOX -- "a costly decision that has proved disastrous... In order for immobilization to be a viable option today, the DOE would have to invest heavily in its development to make up for lost time," says report author Ed Lyman. An even less expensive, quicker option than immobilization, the UCS report details, is downblending, which involves diluting the plutonium with an inert, nonradioactive material prior to final disposal. While DOE has employed this method to dilute some 100 kg of plutonium, most of which has not been disposed of yet, several metric tons of plutonium contained in larger amounts of waste have been disposed of in the so-called Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in a salt mine in New Mexico.