US watchdog issues MOX plant snapshot

21 March 2013

A mixed oxide (MOX) fuel plant under construction at Savannah River as part of the USA's plutonium disposition program is likely to start up three years later than originally planned, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has suggested in published testimony.

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility is being built at the South Carolina site as part of a program to dispose of 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. Construction began on the plant, which is being built by the Shaw Areva MOX Services consortium, in 2007 and had been scheduled to begin operations in October 2016.

Problems with the design of critical components has been cited by the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) and the contractor as a major factor behind the delays and cost increases. The facility is based on the Melox MOX facility in France, but according to the GAO, the cost of adapting the French design to meet the needs of the US project "was not well understood when the project was approved for construction."

A second reason cited for the delays is a failure to adequately understand the nuclear supply base, in particular the ability of industry to fabricate and deliver nuclear-quality components to meet the project schedule. GAO says its ongoing review work on the project will focus on these areas as well as on changes in project scope, the effectiveness of project reviews and lifecycle cost estimates for the overall plutonium disposition program.

According to GAO's review, the Department of Energy (DOE) is now forecasting an increase in total project costs for the MOX facility from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion, with operations beginning in November 2019. However these figures are not final. The agency notes that DOE is currently in the process of evaluating a change to the project baseline proposed by the contractor, and that final costs and scheduling will not be known until after the review process is complete. DOE expects to approve a new project baseline by September 2013.

Once operational, the plant would turn 3.5 tonnes per year of weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel assemblies. Initially these were destined for use at Duke Energy's Catawba and McGuire plants although a contract between Duke and the NNSA subsequently lapsed. The NNSA opened negotiations with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on the possibility of using MOX in TVA's reactors in 2009, but the ultimate destination of the MOX that will be produced at the plant remains unclear.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News