COLUMBIA — Federal regulators have given good marks to construction progress at a South Carolina plant to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.
Appropriate progress is being made at the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a letter sent last month to the company contracted to design, build and operate the plant for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
It was the third year in a row the project has gotten a good report from the regulatory agency, which evaluated activity from October 2011 through the end of last year. In a release heralding the report, Shaw AREVA MOX Services also noted that the more than 2,000 people working on the project have logged more than 14 million consecutive work hours without a lost workday due to injury.
The plant, which broke ground in 2007 and is expected to be completed in 2016, will blend weapons-grade plutonium to create commercial nuclear reactor fuel and would be the first of its kind in the United States. The mammoth concrete and steel structure is being built at a former nuclear bomb plant, where reactors have been shut down for more than a decade.
The good report comes weeks after the revelation that the project is over budget.
Last month, the General Accountability Office said the plant was expected to cost about $2 billion more than originally expected, putting its anticipated cost at just under $7 billion. In its annual report on high-risk government projects, the GAO mentioned the project only briefly but also noted that it is doing a separate inquiry into the program.
The site sits along the South Carolina-Georgia border, and congressional representatives from both states have been vocal in their support of projects there including MOX. In addition to producing commercial reactor fuel, the plant is part of an international nonproliferation effort. Both the United States and Russia have committed to disposing of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium – an amount, according to the nuclear security agency, that is enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
But criticism has swirled around the project, which has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce. But MOX Services has said negotiations are under way with several utility companies interesting in buying the fuel, and the Tennessee Valley Authority has begun holding public meetings in preparation for potentially signing on as a customer.
“The assessment by the NRC is the only good news for the MOX project in a sea of bad news – mismanagement resulting in massive cost overruns, chronic schedule delays, no customers to use MOX fuel and looming budget cuts,” said Tom Clements, an anti-nuclear activist with Friends of the Earth.
He said primarily because of the cost overruns, “the MOX project rightly faces severe cuts” by the federal government.
Nuclear security administration officials did not immediately comment on the regulatory report, or on questions related to the impact that $85 billion in automatic cuts from federal budgets over the next six months would have on the MOX project. About 2,000 workers at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the Savannah River Site’s biggest contractor, were told earlier this week they will be working reduced schedules starting next month because of the cuts.