WASHINGTON -- The National Nuclear Security Administration is backing away from statements it made earlier this month indicating that an assessment of its options for disposing surplus weapons-grade plutonium would not be complete until the spring of 2014 -- a date observers said could have caused further construction delays at a controversial reprocessing facility in South Carolina.
Construction of the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility has been slowed since the Obama administration announced in April that it was reassessing its options for disposing of the plutonium. The MOX facility would convert the material into fuel for nuclear power plants, but a series of delays and cost overruns prompted the administration to study whether there are more efficient options.
A contracting notice the agency made public on Oct. 4 said it expected the assessment to be finished in mid-fiscal 2014, or spring of the calendar year. Such timing could have meant funding cuts for MOX construction would remain in place an additional year, given that the administration's annual budget proposal typically is released earlier in the year, Tom Clements, of the watchdog group Friends of the Earth told Global Security Newswire.
However, the administration on Thursday released a revised version of the notice that omits any information pertaining to when the assessment will be finished. An Energy Department official told GSN Friday that the prior statement suggesting the review would not be complete until mid-fiscal 2014 was made in error. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue and asked not to be named, said the assessment would likely be completed sooner, possibly before the end of 2013.
Like the earlier version, the revised notice announces the extension of a contract to do work on a supplemental environmental impact statement for plutonium disposition which originally had been scheduled for release earlier this year. Anne Harrington, deputy NNSA administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, told GSN in August that the agency would not release the environmental document until after it completed the assessment of disposal options.
Similarly, the earlier version of the contract notice released Oct. 4 cited the ongoing review as one reason why work on the environmental impact statement would continue into 2014. However, the revision issued Thursday says the contract extension "is not associated with the Department's assessment of alternative plutonium disposition strategies."
According to the unnamed Energy Department official, this language in the revised notice is not meant to contradict Harrington's prior statement. The source acknowledged that the two items are related in the sense that, if the ongoing assessment causes the administration's preferred option for plutonium disposition to change, the environmental impact statement would have to reflect that change.
The language in the revised notice is instead meant to indicate that the contract extension itself is not directly dependent on the assessment of options, the Energy Department official said.
The notice extends the contract for work related to the environmental impact statement until November 2014. The statement itself is expected by April 2014, according to the revised notice.