Federal auditors point to project management inexperience at the U.S. Energy Dept. and its National Nuclear Security Administration as a key reason that caused the estimated final cost of the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) Fabrication facility in South Carolina rose to $17.2 billion from its original $4.8-billion estimate, and its completion date extended by 32 years. The facility, intended as a central plutonium disposal site, was scrapped in October. DOE began the MOX project at its Savannah River former weapons site in 1997 to manage disposition of highly radioactive surplus plutonium. In 1999, DOE awarded a contract to design, build and operate MOX to a consortium, now called CB&I Areva MOX Services. The contractor had said it could complete construction by 2029 at a total project cost of about $10 billion. In a December report for a U.S. Senate committee, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said NNSA’s project staff failed to recognize signs that MOX would not finish on time or within approved cost, which had been pointed out in a 2014 study. Despite DOE and NNSA “historical” difficulties on project cost and schedule control, GAO said the agencies “document [PM] lessons learned differently and that not all documented lessons learned are readily accessible to other staff.” Its report adds that DOE does not require staff to share details for capital asset projects “until the start of construction, which can occur many years” after a project start. GAO acknowledged DOE/NNSA past corrective steps, but said they often failed to prevent similar problems from re-emerging. Agency officials said they would issue policy changes by December to incorporate GAO’s outlined fixes.
Halted MOX Plant Prompts Project Management Scrutiny
U.S. secretly ships Cold War-era plutonium to Nevada
The U.S. government secretly shipped a large amount of deadly plutonium from a South Carolina site that produced the radioactive metal for nuclear bombs during the Cold War to Nevada, the Trump administration revealed on Wednesday. The Justice Department, on behalf of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said in a notice filed with a U.S. court in Nevada that it could reveal the shipment of half a metric ton (1,100 pounds) because sufficient time had elapsed after the transfer to protect national security. The shipment occurred before November 2018. The U.S. court in Nevada has been considering an effort by the state of Nevada to stop planned shipments of a metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina, that the Energy Department announced last August. The plutonium was shipped from the K-Reactor at the Savannah River Site, the oldest reactor at the facility, to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site, about 70 miles (112.65 km) north of Las Vegas. The revelation angered politicians from Nevada, a sparsely populated state where the federal government has long wanted to store nuclear waste. U.S. Senator Jack Rosen, a Democrat, said the NNSA misled a federal court “in a deceitful and unethical move, jeopardizing the health and safety of thousands of Nevadans and Americans who live in close proximity to shipment routes.” She said she and other state politicians were prepared to take action against the NNSA. Representative Dina Titus, another Nevada Democrat, said the shipments would bolster opposition to the storage of spent fuel from nuclear power plant in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a project on which billions of dollars has been spent that was closed by former President Barack Obama. The NNSA said that due to security reasons no public notice was given ahead of the shipment and the highway route was not revealed. The department did not reveal when the shipment was made, other than it occurred before November 2018, before Nevada had sued to stop the proposed shipments. The United States built the Savannah River Site during the 1950s to produce basic materials for nuclear weapons, mostly tritium and plutonium-239. In October the Trump administration killed plans to convert 34 tons of plutonium there into mixed oxide or MOX fuel for a specialized nuclear power reactor that has never been built in the United States. Like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration wants to dilute and bury that plutonium, potentially in New Mexico.
Nevada delegation bashes Rick Perry for secretly shipping weapons-grade plutonium into their state
Nevada Democrats took aim at Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday for secretly trucking weapons-grade plutonium cross-country to Nevada last year, vowing to introduce legislation to block the Trump administration from making any future trips. "Not only did Secretary Perry and the agencies under his direction act in bad faith by totally ignoring the will of our Governor, their decision also completely disregards the health and safety of Nevadans," said Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. She was joined by Sen. Jacky Rosen and Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada in admonishing the agency as behaving illegally and unethically. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency in charge of nuclear safety, said it had no involvement in the Energy Department shipments. Cortez Masto said she will be demanding answers at a meeting she quickly arranged with high-level officials from the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is in charge of the nuclear arsenal. The senator also will be introducing legislation to block any future shipments, she said in a statement. Cortez Masto said Perry had lied to a federal court by withholding information that the federal government had shipped plutonium from a nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina to a facility outside of Las Vegas. “It’s unconscionable that the Department of Energy (DOE) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) went into federal court in Nevada and failed to disclose that they shipped weapons grade plutonium into our backyards," the senator said. The Energy Department revealed on Wednesday to a federal judge in Reno that it had shipped the weapons-grade nuclear fuel. It explained that it could not reveal the activity earlier because it would endanger national security. "I’ll be demanding they explain why these agencies ignored a federal court and how this reckless decision was made," Cortez Masto said. The state of Nevada had asked a court to block the movement of the nuclear material, but it appears the Energy Department moved the fuel before the court ruled on the state's petition. The senator said she will investigate any other possible efforts to move nuclear fuel into the state, as well as any high level effort to bring nuclear waste to the state by reviving the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility. Other members of the House and Senate delegation joined her in blasting Perry over the incident. Meanwhile, the Nevada delegation and other Democrats sent a letter to Perry on Thursday, asking him to open an investigation into cases of sexual assault and harassment at the Nevada National Security Site. The letter was unrelated to the plutonium shipment, except that it involves the facility where the material had been shipped. The letter was in response to a Jan. 25 New York Times story on alleged sexual harassment that took place at the site in November 2017. The lawmakers not only want Perry to investigate the claims in the article, but "initiate a thorough review of the broader existence of sexual assault and harassment" at all facilities administered by the Department of Energy.
Nevada officials knew of plutonium shipment plans, Energy Department says
Yep, that's the crux of the problem.He said the issue originated from a much larger problem: "We as a nation never developed a way of getting rid of all this plutonium that we produced."
Feds secretly ship plutonium to Nevada to meet South Carolina court order
On Wednesday, DOE lawyer Bruce Diamond wrote (PDF) that the plutonium had already been moved, rendering Nevada's request for injunction moot. "In order to provide security for its shipments of these kinds of materials, DOE normally will not release information about the status of the shipment(s) until sometime after the shipping 'campaign' is concluded," Diamond wrote.
Federal nuclear regulators approve termination of MOX construction license
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signed off on the termination of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility construction license, yet another sign there will be no resurrecting the incomplete venture. The NRC approved termination of the construction authorization on Feb. 8. Decision documents were made publicly available on the NRC website three days later. MOX Services, the MOX project lead contractor, on Nov. 1, 2018 requested the NRC cancel its construction license within 30 days. The request was made via letter. In the letter, MOX Services President David Del Vecchio said construction at the project had ceased. The work was now directed toward preservation of the facility and securing important documents and information, Del Vecchio wrote.
Nevada seeks new injunction to block plutonium shipments
Nevada's attorney general is making another bid for a court order blocking shipments of weapons-grade plutonium to a site near Las Vegas, declaring Thursday that the U.S. government's assurances no more of the radioactive material is Nevada-bound "aren't worth the paper they're written on." Attorney General Aaron Ford filed notice earlier this week that the state will appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal judge in Reno refused to grant an earlier request for an order prohibiting shipments. He filed a new motion in U.S. District Court in Reno on Thursday seeking a preliminary injunction to block the arrival of any more plutonium until the San Francisco-based appellate court rules. The Energy Department disclosed for the first time on Jan. 30 that it secretly trucked 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms) of the highly radioactive material to the site sometime before November, when the state first filed a lawsuit seeking to ban the shipments from South Carolina. The department said it doesn't intend to ship any more of the material from its Savannah River site to Nevada.
But Ford said in earlier court documents that lawyers representing the DOE had told Nevada's lawyers as recently as last month that no shipments would occur until at least the end of January, only to learn it had been shipped months earlier. "When the Department of Energy takes unilateral action to ship dangerous material to Nevada, it robs the state of our ability to prepare for the risks associated with transporting and storing plutonium," Ford said Thursday. "Frankly, the Department of Energy has lost all credibility and trust, and its assurances that it will not ship any plutonium in the future aren't worth the paper they're written on," he said. DOE officials said in revealing the previous shipment last week that they had to keep it secret until recently for national security reasons. They insist appropriate notice was provided in August when the DOE approved plans to temporarily store plutonium in Nevada to meet a court-ordered deadline to remove it from South Carolina by Jan. 1, 2020. "DOE was as transparent about this movement as operational security would permit," DOE said in a statement Thursday night.
"The state of Nevada's latest motion to stop all plutonium shipments into the state puts at risk not only important ongoing national security missions, but also the livelihood of the nearly 3,000 Nevadans who play an incredibly important role in ensuring those missions are executed," the department said in an email to the AP. The state fears an accident could permanently harm an area home to 2.2 million residents and host to more than 40 million tourists annually. Experts testifying on behalf of Nevada at a hearing on Jan. 17 said the material likely would have to pass directly through Las Vegas on the way to the Nevada Nuclear National Security Site about 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of the city. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Wednesday that his "callous disregard" for Nevada's interests has endangered residents and "destroyed any semblance of trust." He said Thursday the new motion is intended "to prevent the Department from pulling this despicable stunt again while the Ninth Circuit considers our appeal." Nevada argues DOE is relying on outdated environmental reviews to justify the shipments and should have to conduct further studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act to consider the population growth and increased traffic in the Las Vegas area over the past decade. It says DOE intends to leave the material in shipping containers not intended for storage until it plans to transfer the materials elsewhere. DOE said earlier it wanted to temporarily store the material at the Nevada site and the government's Pantex Plant in Texas, two facilities that already handle and process plutonium. The department says it would be sent by 2027 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or an unnamed other facility.