U.S. Department of Energy takes steps to halt construction of partially finished MOX plant at Savannah River Site

Tom Clements

On May 10, 2018, US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry delivered to Congress a letter "waiving" the legal requirement to continue spending funds on construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at DOE's Savannah River Site. The delivery of the letter initiated a 30-day period after which spending of further funds on construction can be terminated.

The conditions for MOX termination were spelled out in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (NDAA), passed into law on December 12, 2017. Section 3121 of the NDAA authorized the Secretary of Energy to waive spending on MOX construction, if he could certify that the cost "for the alternative option would be less than approximately half of the estimated remaining lifecycle cost of the mixed-oxide fuel program." The only active non-MOX option on the table is "dilute and dispose" (D&D) - blending plutonium with an inert material for disposal as transuranic waste in the Waste isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

A report on the dilute and dispose alternative to MOX was also delivered to Congress on May 10, 2018, along with Secretary Perry's waiver letter. The report, obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists and entitled Surplus Plutonium Disposition Dilute and Dispose Option Independent Cost Estimate (ICE) Report, appears to meet a congressional requirement for MOX termination and demonstrates, according to DOE, that the D&D option is less than half the cost of MOX.

The Independent Cost Estimate, claimed by DOE to have calculated the dilute and dispose life-cycle cost estimate "in a manner comparable to the cost estimating and assessment best practices of the Government Accountability Office," states that "the remaining Estimate-To-Complete (ETC) for the MOX fuel program is $49.4B," with $7.6 billion already sunk.

The ICE report states that the cost estimate for D&D "ranges between $17.2B and $19.9B, with a most likely ETC cost of $18.2B." The report concludes that "the remaining D&D ETC lifecycle cost is therefore 35% to 40% of the remaining MOX fuel program ETC lifecycle cost." It should be noted that the dollars quoted in these cost estimates are "then-year" dollars that would mostly be spent decades in the future because of an assumed limitation on annual expenditures for construction of $350 million. The annual escalation rate for costs assumed in these estimates was 4% for construction and 2% for labor.

Legislation passed by Congress on March 21, 2018 for U.S. Government funding in Fiscal Year 2018 for the first time brought the appropriating committees into agreement about stopping the MOX project, if terms of the NDAA were met (see Section 309). That section of the spending legislation stipulates that DOE "may not use funds provided for the Project to eliminate such Project until the date that is 30 days after the submission of the lifecycle cost estimate."

The Independent Cost Estimate submitted on May 10 states that the "MOX contract termination and construction close-out is defined as DOE directing the MOX prime contractor to develop a plan within 90 days to terminate the project and begin to secure information, materials, and equipment at the job site to protect government assets and ensure the safety of workers."

It is assumed that the termination plan is being developed and that an announcement will be made soon on when the last construction funds will be spent. Project termination and securing the MOX facility, according to the ICE report, could take several years and cost $1 billion. It is expected that MOX Services - now a consortium of McDermott International, Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I) and Orano (formerly Areva) - will carry out the yet-to-be-developed termination plan.