NEW ELLENTON — A project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel is making good progress – despite being billions of dollars over its original projected price tag – but shrinking funding might mean fewer inspections, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said Wednesday.
“We will still come out and do inspections, but they may be stretched out over a longer period of time,” Deb Seymour of the NRC said during a public meeting about the mixed-oxide fuel plant. “It’ll just make a difference in how many of the specialist inspectors show up.”
Seymour was answering a question about federal funding for the project, which is planned to eventually make a commercial nuclear fuel called MOX. The plant is part of a nonproliferation effort with the United States and Russia committed to disposing of at least 34 metric tons each of weapons-grade plutonium – an amount equivalent to enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
Construction at the site began in 2007. Earlier this year, the NRC gave good marks to progress on the project for the third year in a row. In a release heralding that report, Shaw Areva MOX Services – the company contracted to build the plant – also noted that the more than 2,000 people working on the project have logged more than 14 million consecutive work hours without a lost workday due to injury.
Criticism has swirled around the project, which has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce. MOX Services has said negotiations are underway with several utility companies interested in buying the fuel, but none have officially signed on.
The General Accountability Office said the project is more than three years behind its 2016 completion deadline and is also now expected to cost $3 billion more than expected. The GAO said the project’s price tag had ballooned to $7.7 billion, citing design problems and issues with U.S. Department of Energy oversight as reasons for the increase.
Steve Marr of MOX Services said at Wednesday’s meeting that he would be watching the federal budget very carefully but intended to complete the structure, which he said now includes more than 180,000 cubic yards of concrete and more than 21,000 tons of rebar.
The Obama administration slowed down funding on the project, asking Congress last week for $320 million in its 2014 budget – down more than 25 percent from 2012. In its budget request, the administration wrote that its high costs “may make the project unaffordable” and pledged to look for different ways to dispose of plutonium.
“While we understand that there are decisions to be made in Washington, we are going to continue to proceed with construction at the MOX facility,” Marr said. “We will continue building this important non-proliferation facility, with quality, safety and security as our top priorities.”
NRC officials called Wednesday’s public meeting near the Savannah River Site, where the massive concrete and steel structure is currently under construction. Inspectors spent more than 3,100 hours last year reviewing the project’s progress. NRC official Bill Gloersen said inspectors studied the plant’s air, fire and safety systems, in addition to its general construction progress, and found all to be up to par.
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