Senators Want New Cost Analysis for Mixed-Oxide Plant In Two Weeks

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks to the media after meeting with members of the intelligence community in 2013. Feinstein asked Obama administration officials on Wednesday to come up soon with options for reducing the cost of constructing a facility to convert bomb-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
May 2, 2014, 4:04 a.m.

Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors are giv­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion two weeks to come up with a plan for driv­ing down the cost of con­struct­ing a con­tro­ver­sial fa­cil­ity that would con­vert bomb-grade plutoni­um in­to nuc­le­ar fuel.

En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cials es­tim­ate that con­struc­tion of the be­lea­guered South Car­o­lina fa­cil­ity is about 40 per­cent com­plete, and that the gov­ern­ment would have to spend $25.1 bil­lion more over the site’s life­time for it to com­plete its mis­sion.

Al­tern­at­ively, the de­part­ment could po­ten­tially meet the terms of an agree­ment with Rus­sia by simply down-blend­ing plutoni­um left over from the Cold War at a cost of $8.8 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a re­port it re­leased earli­er this week.

Un­der the down-blend­ing op­tion — one of sev­er­al the de­part­ment is con­sid­er­ing along with a pos­sible com­ple­tion of the mixed-ox­ide fuel con­ver­sion fa­cil­ity — plutoni­um dis­pos­al could be fin­ished by 2046 and car­ries the least risk of en­coun­ter­ing tech­nic­al hurdles that would cause delays, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The MOX fa­cil­ity could com­plete dis­pos­i­tion of the plutoni­um by 2043 at the earli­est and car­ries “sig­ni­fic­ant risk” of be­ing delayed fur­ther, the re­port said.

Mem­bers of Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations En­ergy and Wa­ter De­vel­op­ment Sub­com­mit­tee said on Wed­nes­day they doubted the de­part­ment’s fig­ures, however. They also raised con­cerns with the en­ergy agency’s es­tim­ates that it would take an ad­di­tion­al 18 months to fin­ish study­ing the is­sue and de­cide which op­tion to pur­sue.

“I don’t ac­cept for one minute it’s $25 bil­lion” to con­tin­ue us­ing the MOX op­tion, said Sen­at­or Lind­sey Gra­ham (R-S.C.), who also as­serts the pro­ject is ac­tu­ally 60 per­cent com­plete, rather than 40. “So we’re go­ing to have a con­test over are they right “¦ I’m not go­ing to ac­cept your word on any of this.”

Gra­ham was re­fer­ring to the En­ergy de­part­ment gen­er­ally. Re­tired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, who the Sen­ate re­cently con­firmed to lead the semi-autonom­ous Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, test­i­fied at the Wed­nes­day hear­ing for the first time on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s be­half.

Chal­len­ging the de­part­ment’s sug­ges­tion that it would take an ad­di­tion­al 18 months to choose a path for­ward, Sen­at­or Lamar Al­ex­an­der (R-Tenn.) re­it­er­ated his po­s­i­tion that the ad­min­is­tra­tion should as­semble a spe­cial “Red Team” of ex­perts to study the is­sue more quickly.

Al­ex­an­der, the top Re­pub­lic­an on the sub­com­mit­tee, was re­fer­ring to a group of ex­perts that re­cently stud­ied op­tions for mod­ern­iz­ing the na­tion’s meth­od of pro­cessing highly en­riched urani­um for weapons use. He sug­ges­ted such re­views could be fin­ished in as little as 90 days.

Sen­at­or Di­anne Fein­stein (D-Cal­if.), the sub­com­mit­tee chair­wo­man, said she was sym­path­et­ic to the con­cerns of her Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues. She raised wor­ries about stray­ing from an agree­ment with Rus­sia to use the MOX fa­cil­ity as the means of dis­pos­ing the ex­cess plutoni­um. The po­ten­tial change comes at a time when re­la­tions with Mo­scow are gen­er­ally strained, and when the United States is also pur­su­ing con­tro­ver­sial plans to mod­ern­ize its cur­rent nuc­le­ar weapons, the pan­el head noted.

“I’m really con­cerned about break­ing an agree­ment with the Rus­si­ans at this stage and in­creas­ing fund­ing for life-ex­ten­sion pro­grams — not with Ford-type tech­no­logy but Ca­dillac-type tech­no­logy,” Fein­stein said. “I really think it presents a huge di­lemma to this coun­try in terms of keep­ing its word in agree­ments, and par­tic­u­larly with a very power­ful coun­try that is at sixes and sev­ens with us and every­body else.”

Fein­stein has been par­tic­u­larly crit­ic­al of plans to ex­tend the life of aging B-61 nuc­le­ar war­heads sta­tioned in Europe, and has sought to lim­it fund­ing for the pro­ject. 

She said that Klotz has “got to break whatever it is in this de­part­ment that ends up” caus­ing ma­jor pro­jects to run over budget and be­hind sched­ule. The sen­at­or noted that the de­part­ment once es­tim­ated it would cost $1.8 bil­lion to build the MOX fa­cil­ity, and that it now pre­dicts it would cost $8 bil­lion.

Fein­stein ques­tioned the value of put­ting the MOX pro­ject on “cold standby” while the ad­min­is­tra­tion stud­ies al­tern­at­ives, as the de­part­ment has planned to do be­gin­ning in fisc­al 2015.

The chair­wo­man asked that Klotz re­turn to her and Al­ex­an­der with­in the next two weeks with a pro­pos­al on how his agency would “re-look at the MOX num­bers [and sug­gest] po­ten­tial changes that can be made to “¦ keep the price down.”

Ac­cord­ing to Fein­stein, the sub­com­mit­tee needs the in­form­a­tion quickly in or­der for it to in­form the pan­el’s draft­ing of its spend­ing bill for fisc­al 2015.

The new NNSA ad­min­is­trat­or agreed to Fein­stein’s re­quest.

“We’ll come see you in two weeks,” Klotz said.

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