Energy Watchdog: Plutonium Plant’s Missteps Still Loom Large

Workers lay concrete in 2008 at the unfinished Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. The Energy Department's inspector general sees a risk of repeating errors that led to cost overruns in the project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
May 27, 2014, 10:57 a.m.

Aud­it­ors said the En­ergy De­part­ment may re­peat mis­steps that led to cost and sched­ule over­runs in an ini­ti­at­ive to elim­in­ate weapon-grade plutoni­um.

Of­fi­cials used an “im­ma­ture design” to es­tab­lish a 2007 “baseline” plan for a new fa­cil­ity to con­vert the plutoni­um in­to mixed-ox­ide re­act­or fuel, the En­ergy De­part­ment’s in­spect­or gen­er­al said in a new re­port. Gregory Fried­man and his audit team said the move led to in­ap­pro­pri­ately op­tim­ist­ic pre­dic­tions on con­struc­tion costs and em­ploy­ee turnover. Ul­ti­mately, rami­fic­a­tions in­cluded three years of delays and nearly $3 bil­lion in un­ex­pec­ted costs for the pro­ject at South Car­o­lina’s Sa­van­nah River Site.

“We re­main con­cerned with the pro­ject man­age­ment is­sues ob­served dur­ing the audit,” Fried­man said in the May 22 as­sess­ment.

He said the prob­lems found by his of­fice’s in­vest­ig­a­tion and by sim­il­ar probes are “ap­plic­able to the fu­ture dir­ec­tion of the MOX Fa­cil­ity and oth­er large de­part­ment con­struc­tion pro­jects.” Pre­vi­ously, the Army Corps of En­gin­eers de­term­ined that the MOX plant would cost $30 bil­lion to build and main­tain.

The En­ergy De­part­ment earli­er this year an­nounced plans to moth­ball the MOX fa­cil­ity, due to rising costs and sched­ule delays. The de­part­ment’s semi­autonom­ous Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion is still eval­u­at­ing op­tions for dis­pos­ing of the 34 met­ric tons of ex­cess U.S. weapons-grade plutoni­um, as re­quired un­der a non­pro­lif­er­a­tion deal with Rus­sia.

“This as­sess­ment and [an] as­so­ci­ated in­de­pend­ent re­view are ex­pec­ted to be com­pleted in the next 12 to 18 months,” ac­cord­ing to the in­spect­or gen­er­al’s re­port. “We are hope­ful that the audit res­ults can help to in­form the cur­rent pro­ject re­as­sess­ment.”

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