Washington, D.C., February 27, 2014 – The Department of Energy’s behind-schedule, over-budget project at the Savannah River weapons plant in South Carolina to blend weapons-grade plutonium with uranium to make civilian nuclear fuel appears to have the blind staggers. Don’t be surprised if the project, which enjoys enormous support in South Carolina and Georgia, is killed soon.
Two knowledgeable sources have told me that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and President Obama met in the White House this week and decided to cancel the project on budget grounds. Begun in 2000 as part of a deal with Russia in which each nuclear weapons superpower agreed to destroy 34 metric tonnes of stockpiled plutonium, the project’s capital budget has ballooned from an initial $1.6 billion to a current estimate of $7.7 billion. About $4 billion has been spent so far.
The latest estimate of the 20-year lifetime costs of the project is an eye-popping $30 billion. The project involves building both a plant to make the mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) and a companion plant to dispose of the remaining waste.
The Obama administration sent out signals last summer that it was edging toward closing the MOX project. That was before the most recent lifetime cost estimate this month, which stunned the South Carolina congressional delegation. At the same time as the new estimate, DOE sent a consultant, David Darugh, to Savannah River to, as reported in the Aiken Standard, “examine options for possibly terminating the MOX contract held by Shaw-Areva Services, which is the contractor currently in charge of constructing the facility.” Darugh is a retired DOE official who presided over the shutdown of the Superconducting Supercollider, a major project cancelled by Congress in the 1990s. He then became chief counsel in DOE’s Savannah River Operations Office, retiring in 2002.
The most recent blow to the project was a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office, requested by the bipartisan leadership of the House Appropriations Committee’s energy and water subcommittee. The congressional watchdog agency said DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, in charge of the project, has no real clue on how much the project will cost and how to manage it. The NNSA, which is a quasi-independent agency inside DOE, has a generally poor record of management of major projects.
The GAO report said, “NNSA has not analyzed the underlying, or root, causes of the plutonium disposition program construction cost increases to help identify lessons learned and help address the agency’s difficulty in completing projects within cost and schedule, which has led to NNSA’s management of major projects remaining on GAO’s list of areas at high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” The report added that “it is uncertain whether NNSA will be able to accurately identify underlying causes of the increases to identify and implement corrective measures and identify lessons learned to apply to other projects.”
Canceling the MOX project does not mean the U.S. would abandon its agreement with the Russians (who are also running behind schedule, according to several press accounts). It means the U.S. would have to seek another way to render the plutonium useless. Most likely would be mixing the plutonium with molten glass, forming it into glass logs, and eventually burying it as military waste.
The collapse of the MOX project would put Moniz in a sensitive place. He was one of the Clinton administration officials who negotiated the 2000 agreement with the Russians. During his Senate Energy Committee confirmation hearing last year, he skillfully dodged questions from Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) trying to get a commitment from the administration to go forward with the project in his home state. The most Moniz would say was, “I certainly think we need to honor our agreement with Russia in terms of mutual disposition of plutonium.”