“My gut feeling is good,” Kelly Trice, president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, said during a conference call with reporters. “The administration has certainly testified over and over and over again their commitment with the program. ... But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.”
Trice’s company has been hired by the National Nuclear Security Administration to build a facility to turn weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, to be used by commercial nuclear reactors. It’s being built at the Savannah River Site, a sprawling complex near the South Carolina-Georgia line where reactors now long since shuttered once made nuclear weapon materials.
The plant is part of an international nonproliferation effort, with the United States and Russia committed to disposing of at least 34 metric tons each of weapons-grade plutonium. That amount, according to NNSA, is enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads. And Trice said he believes the Obama administration is committed to that mission to continue to fund the MOX facility.
“The U.S. did sign this agreement” Trice said. “We have a history as a country, generally, of meeting our agreements.”
But MOX has been plagued by cost overruns and delays, causing many to speculate that its funding will be cut dramatically in the budget request due out from the administration next week. Last month, the General Accountability Office said the project’s price tag had ballooned to $7.7 billion, more than $3 billion over previous estimates. GAO cited design problems and issues with U.S. Department of Energy oversight as reasons for the increase.
Construction began in 2007, and the plant had been forecast to be operational by 2016. According to the GAO’s most recent information, that date has now been pushed back by more than three years.
Some of those delays, Trice said, can be attributed to the fact that MOX, the first plant of its kind in the U.S., is also the first nuclear facility built in this country in decades.
“The U.S. also had a lot of nuclear manufacturing dormancy,” he said. “We also had numerous challenges with the availability of quality vendors and supplies to produce components.”
Trice also said that, with such a long-range project, employee turnover has been high, as workers are trained and then move on to other jobs within the nuclear industry.
MOX Services officials say the project is about 60 percent complete, and the company recently held a ceremony to mark the milestone of putting the structure’s roof in place. But the massive concrete and steel building is far from airtight, with many openings remaining to bring in parts and machines. And Trice said weather conditions like rain mean that components inside may be compromised.
The MOX plant has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce, although Trice said Thursday that negotiations are under way with several utility companies interesting in buying the fuel. The Tennessee Valley Authority has also begun holding public meetings and gathering input in preparation for potentially signing on as a customer.
The project, which currently employs more than 2,000 people, has received wide-ranging support from South Carolina’s congressional delegation as a job creator for the region. Representatives for both of South Carolina’s U.S. senators and several congressmen didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment about the facility’s funding.
NNSA officials declined Thursday to comment on MOX project funding.