New Army Corps of Engineers Report Reveals that the Problems with MOX Run Deep

September 26, 2016 | 10:29 am
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

Late Friday afternoon, the Department of Energy released an updated assessment of the status of construction of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS). The report contains more bad news for the troubled facility.

The MOX facility is intended to convert several dozen metric tons of surplus plutonium from retired nuclear weapons into fuel for nuclear reactors. With each status update, it becomes ever more apparent that the MFFF is a doomed plant that will never operate. The only question is how much more money and time will be wasted on this project before Congress finally accepts reality and pulls the plug for good.

This report is the latest salvo in the titanic battle between the Obama administration, which is seeking to terminate the MOX program, and the MFFF’s powerful home-state protectors, including Senator Lindsey Graham. The “2016 Updated Performance Baseline,” a joint study by the DOE and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), describes systemic problems that are contributing to the massive cost overruns and delays plaguing the MFFF project. The report provides new estimates for the MFFF’s construction cost ($17.2 billion), current percent complete (28%) and year of completion (2048).

That’s right: 2048! Given that two to three decades would be needed to operate the facility, with luck our grandchildren may have a chance to see the completion of the project.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the report is the revelation that the MFFF contractor, CB&I Areva MOX Services, is far less bullish on the progress of the project in private than it is in public. MOX Services and its supporters, including Congressman Joe Wilson, have long contended that DOE’s estimates are too pessimistic: They claim that the facility will only cost $7.7 billion and thus is nearly 70% complete based on the amount of money it has already spent on plant construction. However, according to the report, the contractor’s current internal estimate of the plant cost is $9.99 billion, with a completion date of 2029. This means that only 48% of the total project cost has actually been spent.

But even this estimate, which is well above the DOE/USACE value of 28% complete, is misleading.

In part, the discrepancy is due to the fact that CB&I has overstated the degree of completion of the facility in its performance reports. CB&I bases its estimate of completion on total money spent, which includes commodities (like piping) that have been purchased but not installed, as well as those that been installed have not yet passed quality assurance inspections (and thus may have to be “reworked,” or ripped out and replaced.). The report contains a table on page 4 that shows that only a small fraction of installed commodities have passed quality control inspections. This is an important point because the rework rate has been very high at the plant (DOE has said in the past it is 25%). This is due in part to a “systemic” pattern of early procurements—equipment was purchased before detailed facility design was completed (and presumably is often unusable as a result).

When I toured the plant back in March, I was amazed to see a field covered with sections of ductwork, all exposed to the elements. Obviously the rate of procurement of equipment for this facility has been well out of balance with the rate at which the equipment is installed.

In summary, this report clearly illustrates how poor management of this project has led to much wasted time, money and effort, putting it on an irreversible track to failure.

UCS once again urges Congress to stop propping up this program and to allow DOE to redirect resources to “dilute and dispose,” a cheaper and safer approach that would likely complete the critical plutonium disposition mission before the MFFF even starts operating.