COLUMBIA - Officials have been unable to control costs at a multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor fuel project at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, according to a new audit released this month.
The inspector general of the U.S. Energy Department says in the report that the National Nuclear Security Administration and a private contractor have been "largely unsuccessful" in keeping tabs on the facility that would turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel.
The project, known as MOX, is part of a nonproliferation agreement between the United States and Russia, with each country agreeing to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium - an amount that officials have said is equal to 17,000 warheads. It would be the first of its kind in the United States.
Criticism has swirled around the project, which has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce. MOX Services has said negotiations are underway with several utility companies interested in buying the fuel, but none have officially signed on.
The project is more than three years behind its 2016 completion deadline and is also now expected to cost $3 billion more than planned, according to the General Accountability Office. The GAO has also said the project's price tag has ballooned to nearly $8 billion, citing design problems and issues with Energy Department oversight as reasons for the increase.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that goals and timelines were approved before all of the plant's designs had been completed, according to the inspector general report. On top of that, according to the report, the contractor also underestimated costs for some equipment and encountered a shortage of qualified nuclear suppliers and subcontractors, leading to an employee turnover rate of nearly 20 percent.
"We remain concerned as to whether the estimated cost and completion date for the MOX Facility ... are achievable," the report noted.
Officials with the NNSA and the site contractor didn't immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday. In the report, the inspector general said the agency was working to make improvements, like getting managers involved earlier in the decision-making process, adding that a decision on how to proceed with the project would be made in the next year to year and a half.
The Obama administration slowed funding on the project and ultimately said earlier this year it intended to mothball the effort. South Carolina sued, saying the federal government had made a commitment to the state and shouldn't shutter the effort, which would result in lost jobs. The lawsuit also said the administration couldn't use money intended to build the plant to shut it down.
The U.S. Energy Department has since acquiesced to funding the program through this fiscal year. Construction at the site is ongoing, but the administration has also said it would look for another way to dispose of the plutonium and thereby honor the Russian agreement, like immobilizing it in glass or processing it in different kinds of reactors.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP