WASHINGTON – The National Nuclear Security Administration has made spring of 2014 the target for completing an assessment of its options for disposing surplus weapons-grade plutonium -- a move observers say suggests the construction slowdown at the agency’s controversial reprocessing facility in South Carolina could last another year.
The agency announced the construction slowdown of the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at its Savannah River site in April 2013, as part of the Obama administration’s rollout of its fiscal 2014 budget proposal. The facility is meant to dispose of weapons-grade materials by converting them into fuel for power plants, but a series of delays and cost overruns associated with the project prompted the administration to reconsider whether there are more efficient disposal options.
Anne Harrington, deputy NNSA administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, told Global Security Newswire in August that the agency would not release an anticipated supplemental environmental impact statement regarding plutonium disposition until after it completed the assessment of its options. At the time, however, Harrington did not indicate how long that process would take. The environmental impact statement had previously been schedule for release earlier this year.
A notice the agency made public Oct. 4 extends the contract for work on the document until September 2014. The notice, dated Sept. 5, 2013, says the new target date for issuing the final environmental impact statement is April 30, 2013. NNSA contracting officer Ariane Kaminsky told GSN on Wednesday that this was due to a typographical error, and that the real target was to be April 30, 2014. Kaminsky said the agency was working to revise the notice, but declined to answer questions regarding whether there would be other changes to the document.
The notice cites the ongoing assessment of plutonium disposition options as a reason for the delay in issuing the environmental impact statement. It says the completed assessment is not due until mid-fiscal 2014, or spring of the calendar year.
Tom Clements, of the watchdog group Friends of the Earth, said the new schedule suggests the administration might not announce a decision on how to move forward with plutonium disposition until after it rolls out its fiscal 2015 budget proposal. Clements, a long-time opponent of the MOX project, noted the administration typically releases its budget in late winter or early spring. When it released the fiscal 2014 proposal in early April of this year, it was considered unusually late.
If in fact the administration releases its fiscal 2015 budget proposal before the plutonium-disposition assessment, the budget proposal would likely include reduced funding levels for the MOX project similar to the fiscal 2014 proposal, Clements said. As a result of the new assessment of options and the construction slowdown, the fiscal 2014 budget called for spending $200 million less than the prior year.
Spokespeople for the administration and Shaw Areva MOX services, the company doing the construction work, could not be reached for comment by press time.