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Report: Watchdog's work contributed to MOX cancellation, $13B in savings

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MOX Poster, SRS Watch Forum (copy) (copy)

A poster showing the canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site. The poster was on display at a Savannah River Site Watch public forum.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s investigations into the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility contributed to the cancellation of the troubled project, ultimately saving billions of dollars, the congressional watchdog said in a recent performance report.

In fiscal year 2020, the office's work yielded $77.6 billion in financial benefits for the government, including about $13 billion from the termination of MOX, the never-completed Savannah River Site plant meant to turn metric tons of plutonium into nuclear fuel.

After the GAO repeatedly looked into MOX, the Energy Department “identified a less costly alternative” – so-called dilute-and-dispose – and axed the project, the Performance and Accountability Report states.

In a May 2018 letter that got the MOX-termination ball rolling, then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry certified that the lifecycle cost of the incomplete nuclear fuel program, almost $50 billion, was significantly more than that of dilute-and-dispose, about $20 billion.

“I confirm that the Department is committed to removing plutonium from South Carolina intended to be disposed of in the MOX facility,” Perry wrote at the time. “We are currently processing plutonium in South Carolina for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and intend to continue to do so.”

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility was more than a decade in the making when it was nixed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department’s dedicated nuclear weapons and nonproliferation office.

The cost of the facility had mushroomed over the years, and progress flagged, officials have said. Construction of MOX, the GAO noted, was initially expected to cost about $4.8 billion – far cheaper than more-recent estimates.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, then the leader of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in a 2019 interview with the Aiken Standard described MOX as “sorely over budget.”

“As we saw, we put $6.5 billion in taxpayer dollars to date in a facility that’s less than 50% complete,” Gordon-Hagerty said. “And, when the lifecycle costs were reevaluated, we were looking at that it wasn’t going to be complete before, I think, 2048. And, so, that just did not sit well with the administration.”

The NNSA and the Defense Department in 2018 recommended repurposing MOX infrastructure for plutonium pit production – the crafting of nuclear weapon cores.

Converting the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility into a pit factory, the prospective Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, could cost about $4.6 billion, the GAO has reported.


Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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