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GAO: SC reactor fuel plant cost rises to $7.7B

Meg Kinnard, Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- The price tag for a South Carolina project intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors has risen by nearly $3 billion, according to the General Accountability Office.

David Trimble, the GAO's natural resources and environment director, said Wednesday in written testimony submitted to a congressional committee that the National Nuclear Security Administration project is now estimated to cost $7.7 billion. In 2008, its cost had been estimated at $4.9 billion.

Trimble also said the project wouldn't be complete until November 2019 — more than three years later than originally expected.

The MOX plant would blend weapons-grade plutonium to create commercial nuclear reactor fuel and would be the first of its kind in the United States. It's being built at the Savannah River Site, a former nuclear bomb plant whose reactors have been shuttered for more than a decade.

The site sits along the South Carolina-Georgia border, and congressional representatives from both states have been vocal in their support of projects there including MOX. In addition to producing commercial reactor fuel, the plant is part of an international nonproliferation effort. Both the United States and Russia have committed to disposing of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium — an amount, according to NNSA, that is enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.

But criticism has swirled around the project, on which construction began in 2007. The MOX plant has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce, although MOX Services has said negotiations are under way with several utility companies interesting in buying the fuel.

The cost increase can be blamed in part on some design problems for critical components, including mechanisms for handling the plutonium inside the plant, Trimble said. Trimble also said that the U.S. Energy Department had tried to improve management of major projects like the MOX plant, but the impact of those efforts wasn't clear.

"As we have reported in the past few years, ongoing major projects continue to experience significant cost increases and schedule delays," Trimble wrote.

He also noted that Energy officials were evaluated cost requests from a contractor and planned to approve a new project baseline cost in September.

NNSA officials did not immediately comment on the report. Watchdog Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth urged federal officials to stop wasting money on the project.

"The years of hard work by public interest groups to terminate funding for the MOX program is paying off," Clements said. "Predictions that MOX costs would spin out of control have proved correct and it is now time for DOE to immediately begin a study for cheaper, safer plutonium disposition alternatives, a so-called Plan B."


Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP