With severe cuts or sequestration on the way, much speculation surrounds the future of the MOX project and its funding from the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA).
Reports out of Washington, D.C., have cuts to the project of greater than 50 percent with claims based on viewing NNSA’s “passback” information. While the numbers are being crunched, South Carolina’s federal delegation are pushing to keep funding levels up for the construction of the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) – the main MOX facility.
Federal agencies submit initial budget requests to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review in the early fall. OMB staff clarify policy and technical questions with the agencies during a review phase. The budgetary decisions of the OMB director are passed back to the agencies, in what is known as an OMB “passback.” This document outlines the appropriations for federal agencies, who revise their budget requests accordingly. This document for NNSA has been significantly delayed this year, according to NNSA. And now released, it is the source of much speculation.
“Congressman Wilson is working with the entire South Carolina delegation to ensure that the MOX project remains relevant and on the way to completion,” said Caroline Delleney, communication director for Rep. Joe Wilson. “He has reached out to officials at NNSA through phone calls, letters and staff-level inquiries. Our office has also requested to see NNSA’s Passback Numbers but has not been granted this information yet.”
As one of the nations largest capital projects, the MOX Project is a focus for cost-cutting in times of budget distress.
Wilson, Rep. Jim Clyburn and Sen. Lindsey Graham are being touted as the leaders of the MOX charge for funding.
“Sen. Graham has been in continuous contact with all the related stakeholders,” said Kevin Bishop, spokesperson for Graham. “He remains very concerned about the MOX Project.”
However, if funding for the construction is slashed, it could be extremely expensive to restart, according to Dr. Clint Wolf, executive director of the Campaign for Nuclear Technology Awareness.
“Several things that happens if you cut projects,” he said. You’ve just increased the cost – period.”
Wolf added that there are significant costs in having to maintain the portion of the facility already constructed. Also, you have to retain talent – which is already difficult at a time when nuclear staffing is already under stress with developments at Vogel and V.C. Sumner.
The MOX Project has received much criticism for exceeding its budgeted construction cost. However, raw materials have seen a significant increase in cost since the estimates were projected.
“Even if it was not a nuclear program and didn’t involve plutonium – the price of construction would go up by 30 percent in this time frame,” Wolf said.
According to data from the Handy-Whitman Index of Public Utility Construction Costs, nuclear construction costs have risen around 30 percent in the last 7 years. Electrical equipment and transformers have risen more steeply still.
Major cost savings have already been realized at the MOX Project with the Department of Energy preferring to use existing facilities rather than construct the Pitt Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF).
“The MOX Fuel Alternative is DOE’s preferred alternative for surplus plutonium disposition,” an October DOE publication reads. “DOE’s preferred option for pit disassembly and the conversion of surplus plutonium metal to supply feed for the MFFF, is to use some combination of facilities at (Los Alamos National Laboratory), K-Area at SRS, H-Canyon/HB-Line at SRS and MFFF at SRS, rather than to construct a new stand-alone facility.”
Wolf estimated that $3.5 billion was saved with this decision.