Independent review on escalating MOX plant costs and DOE reversal of MOX option for surplus plutonium

Shaun Burnie, with Mycle Schneider

Two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports published 8 May 2015 on the U.S. plutonium disposition program are a major setback for the prospects for the operation of the yet to be completed plutonium Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

On 8 May 2015, DOE released an independent review on costs for two methods of plutonium disposition. The report prepared by the Aerospace Corporation (Aerospace) provides dramatically escalating cost estimates for the MFFF project, now under construction by French company AREVA at DOE's Savannah River site, in South Carolina. The report, using the term "real year" (RY) for equivalent cost in future years, states that the MOX plant "construction cannot be completed at current (FY14) funding level (350 million RY$/year cost cap on construction/capital) and the assumed escalation rates (4% construction and capital, 2% labor)."

Aerospace cost estimates for the option of completing the MOX plant and its operation range from $27.2-29.8 billion ($2014), while the alternative to MOX option, to downblend with waste followed by disposal, was $13.1 billion ($2014). At a funding level of $375 million per year-- little more than the current funding level, but decreasing in real terms over the years with decreasing money value--the MOX plant would start operation in 2100. Both cost estimates include other costs, notably those of extracting plutonium from weapons pits, estimated as $8.4 billion and $5.5 billion respectively for the MOX and down-blend options in the 2014 DOE study that was updated in the Aerospace study.

Congress directed DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to task a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) to conduct an independent review of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group (PWG) report. In December 2014, the Aerospace Corporation was approached by DOE/NNSA to perform this review. Aerospace regularly performs technical and risk assessments of large scale complex facility developments for use for civil, commercial, and national security programs.

As stated, the Aerospace review assessed two of five options for disposal of surplus plutonium, converting the plutonium to MOX fuel for use in commercial reactors (program of record) and to downblending the plutonium with inert material and disposition in a geologic repository. The other three options, irradiation of plutonium in fast reactors, immobilization with high level waste and deep borehole disposal are to be assessed in a subsequent report.

In a reversal of its previous preferred option for 13.1 tons of contaminated plutonium, the U.S. DOE notified Congress on 8 May 2015 of its Final Environmental Impact Statement that they had no preferred alternative. This is a reversal of its previous position, when in 2012 in a draft Supplementary EIS in July 2012, the DOE stated that the "MOX Fuel Alternative is DOE's Preferred Alternative for surplus plutonium disposition." The notification to Congress, via the Federal Register, follows the DOE release of its Final Environmental Impact Assessment, as reported by IPFM on April 30th 2015.

Meanwhile, MFFF builder AREVA is fighting for survival. After filing a huge €4.8 billion ($5.5 billion) loss in 2014--this compares to less than €3.5 billion ($4 billion) capital and €8.3 billion ($9.5 billion) turnover--debt reaches €5.8 billion ($6.6 billion). This means the French 87 percent state-owned company is technically bankrupt and will not survive the year in its current form. What will happen to the construction department that is building MFFF remains unclear.