Mismanagement of USA’s nuclear recycling program

Failed Nuclear Weapons Recycling Program Could Put Us All in Danger io9, Mark Strauss, 7 June 14  “…….In 2004, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that the Savannah River MOX facility would cost $1.6 billion. Three years later, that estimate jumped to $4.9 billion. In 2012, the forecasted expenditure increased again, to $7.7 billion. By this time, $4 billion had already been spent and the project employed more than 1,800 construction workers, designers and engineers. Then, in April 2013, an internal review conducted by the Department of Energy revealed that the total lifetime operating cost of the facility—including construction, maintenance and disposal of all the plutonium—would be $24.2 billion.

TJust one example of the poor management that led to cost overruns: NNSA and its primary contractor underestimated the number of safety systems required to meet Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requirements, which further increased equipment installation costs. More specifically, they were unaware of the costs associated with building a facility that could withstand an earthquake. The source of their confusion? The MOX facility’s design is based on a similar facility in France, but the NRC regulatory requirements differ from those in France.

The Department of Energy was also at fault, because it approved the initial cost and schedule estimate, when the overall design of the MOX facility was only about 58% complete.

A report published two weeks ago by the Department’s Inspector General noted:

In a separate July 2006 memorandum to the NNSA Administrator, NNSA’s Associate Administrator for Infrastructure and Environment expressed his concern regarding the MOX Facility project. He expressed the belief that incomplete project planning could lead to an unintended “design-build-design” process similar to that experienced by other major Departmental projects including the Waste Treatment Plant and the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. The Waste Treatment Plant at the Hanford Site was given the approval to start construction when the design was only about 45 percent complete. Since then, total project costs for that facility have increased significantly and the project is considerably behind schedule. He pointed out that, similarly, a comprehensive design review had not been conducted on the complete MOX Facility project and that the project had high-risk potential for increasing downstream costs and schedule.

The White House did its part, as well. In 2010, President Obama announced a loan guarantee of $8.3 billion to help the Southern Company build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. As a result, workers with nuclear engineering design and manufacturing experience were suddenly in very high demand. The MOX construction site had an employee turnover of 20% per year because, after workers completed additional training at the Savannah River Site, they quit to take higher paying jobs in Georgia. The U.S. government was subsidizing its own labor shortfall.

Finally, in March 2014, the White House announced that it would put the whole project on “cold standby”—essentially, preparing it for shutdown—while the administration evaluated “alternative plutonium disposition technologies to MOX that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost effectively.”

Adding up the losses

MOX may be mothballed, but the problem of what to do with our surplus weapons-grade plutonium remains. And, despite cool relations between Washington and Moscow, the disposal agreement still stands.

The Department of Energy has established a Plutonium Disposition Working Group that will spend the next 12 to 18 months trying to come up with a plan. You can see an initial working paper here. The options are depressingly similar to the ones suggested by the National Academy of Sciences, 20 years ago.he sticker shock prompted the Department of Energy to note in its Fiscal Year 2014 budget request that, “This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable…due to cost growth and fiscal pressure.”

Any lingering doubts that the MOX program was on its last legs were dispelled when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report in February 2014. Even by GAO standards, the assessment was scathing.

One of the biggest mistakes, according to the GAO, was entrusting this project to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy:

NNSA has not analyzed the underlying, or root, causes of the Plutonium Disposition program construction cost increases to help identify lessons learned and help address the agency’s difficulty in completing projects within cost and schedule, which has led to NNSA’s management of major projects remaining on GAO’s list of areas at high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

………Even if we got this facility up and working, nobody wants what it’s making. The companies that run commercial nuclear reactors have lost confidence in the program. They can’t be certain that it would provide a reliable, steady supply of fuel, or keep enough surplus fuel on hand in case it was needed. And why would commercial nuclear reactors purchase MOX when low-enriched uranium is cheaper, easier to transport and doesn’t present a security risk? Adding to the climate of skepticism: a MOX fuel irradiation test in a commercial reactor had to be prematurely terminated in 2008 because of unanticipated problems.

The loss to the United States can be measured in more than the $4 billion to build the facility and the hundreds of millions of dollars sent to Russia to subsidize their program. The greater loss is that the U.S. could have spent those funds to shore up other nonproliferation programs…….. http://io9.com/failed-nuclear-weapons-recycling-program-could-put-us-a-1586851270


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