Cost Estimate for MOX Plant Jumps

June 2015

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. government will need to spend at least $47.5 billion to complete the construction of and operate a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, according to an independent assessment made public last month.

That figure represents a jump of 89 percent from the $29 billion that the Energy Department estimated last year for the project.

The MOX facility is designed to turn surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors. Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is required to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium.

The new report, which was completed in April, was prepared for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous part of the Energy Department, by the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center based in California. The fiscal year 2015 omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress last December directed the NNSA to commission an independent review of the costs and schedule for two options for disposing of excess weapons-grade plutonium: fabricating the plutonium into MOX fuel for use in a reactor or down-blending it with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository.

The $47.5 billion “to-go” cost assumes $500 million in annual funding for the MOX project, or roughly $150 million above what Congress appropriated for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 and the administration requested for 2016. (See ACT, March 2015.) At this spending rate, the MOX facility would begin operating in 2044 and complete operations in 2059, according to the report.

The Aerospace Corporation also estimated the remaining project cost if the annual funding rate were $375 million, much closer to current funding levels. At this level, the facility would not begin operating until 2100 and cost approximately $110 billion to complete, the report said.

Neither cost estimate includes the roughly $4 billion that has already been spent on the project.

The completion cost of the down-blending option was estimated at $17.2 billion, with an expected program completion date of 2029.

Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for Shaw Areva MOX Services, the main contractor in charge of building the MOX facility, ­disputed the Aerospace Corporation’s estimates.

“By our calculations, it will take an additional $3.3 billion to complete the project, and it will be done in 5-9 years, depending on the amount of annual funding appropriations,” he said in an April 22 statement.