An audit critical of cost projections and project management for the MOX nuclear fuel plant at the Savannah River Site has provided further ammunition for its critics as the Obama administration seeks to mothball the project.
The budget for the $7.7 billion plant intended to convert surplus plutonium into fuel for civilian reactors climbed $2.9 billion between 2007 and 2012 while its expected completion date slipped by more than three years. An audit released last week by the Department of Energy's inspector general placed much of the blame on a decision to develop cost estimates before the plant's design was finished. The audit found that the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration and contractor Shaw Areva MOX Services didn't follow standard DOE project management practices requiring design and engineering to be essentially complete before the start of construction. As a result, project assumptions significantly underestimated the amount of work needed to install piping, valves, cabling and other components. The expected extent of duct work installation, for example, tripled. Managers also underestimated the amount of materials required and did not anticipate a shortage of qualified construction personnel, which contributed to a turnover rate of about 20 percent in 2012. While the NNSA has taken steps to improve its oversight of the project, the audit concluded, "NNSA and MOX Services have been largely unsuccessful in controlling the cost and schedule for the MOX facility."
The audit comes as the administration and the plant's supporters in Congress debate whether to put the entire project on hold. In its 2015 budget request, the administration proposed that construction be suspended indefinitely while the DOE studies alternatives to meet a plutonium disposition agreement with Russia. Plant supporters accused the DOE of exceeding its authority by taking steps in that direction this year and reached an agreement to continue construction through September