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.
SRS plutonium shipments to Nevada are complete, NNSA general counsel declares
No more of the one metric ton of plutonium designated for removal from South Carolina will be sent to the Nevada National Security Site, according to Bruce Diamond, the National Nuclear Security Administration's general counsel. "I now file this declaration to clarify my previous statement and again assert that NNSA has completed all plutonium shipments to the Nevada National Security Site and the state of Nevada under the proposed action at issue in this case," Diamond said in a Feb. 13 court declaration. "As stated in the United States' status report in response to the court's minute order ... no more plutonium will be shipped to the Nevada National Security Site from any location as part of the supplement analysis' proposed action," Diamond continued. A half-metric-ton of defense plutonium has already been relocated to NNSS. That tranche was handled prior to November 2018 and was publicly revealed in a separate declaration made by Diamond in late January. The relocation campaign — followed by high-profile government outrage — is the result of a December 2017 court order, which requires the U.S. Department of Energy to get one metric ton of weapons-usable plutonium out of the Savannah River Site and South Carolina in general by 2020. The NNSA is a semiautonomous energy department agency.
A NNSA spokesperson last year told the Aiken Standard half of the one metric ton would be taken out of the state by the end of 2018 — that came to fruition. The remaining half, the spokesperson said, would be moved out of the state by the end of 2019. A NNSA senior spokesperson earlier this month said the agency continues to be "on track" to satisfy the court's order. The total one metric ton of plutonium, according to a July 2018 NNSA study, was scheduled to be sent to NNSS and the Pantex Plant in Texas for staging. The metric ton will eventually be used for weapons — pit production — purposes at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to the same study. "This material will ultimately be used for vital national security missions and is not waste," NNSA Chief of Staff William "Ike" White wrote in a letter to Nevada officials. NNSS is northwest of Las Vegas.
Contractor traded football tickets, rifles for work on SC nuclear fuel plant, feds say
Federal contractors at the Savannah River Site accepted tickets to University of Alabama football games, the Masters golf tournament and NASCAR races, along with YETI coolers, hunting rifles and cellphones, in exchange for handing out work at the nuclear storage facility, a new federal lawsuit alleges. The cost of those kickbacks was then charged to taxpayers, according a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The contractors — Areva and Chicago Bridge & Iron — were hired to build a plant that would turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants, but instead they stand accused of overlooking a scheme that bilked taxpayers out of $6.4 million.
The suit raises further concerns over a federal construction effort that was marred by schedule delays, cost overruns and questionable spending. This isn’t the first time Areva and Chicago Bridge & Iron were named in a federal lawsuit over fraudulent purchases for the defunct project, known as the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX. But it marks the most serious allegations yet about the unfinished nuclear facility, which was canceled by the U.S. Department of Energy last year after more than $7.6 billion was spent. The project was supposed to create a factory at the Savannah River Site to transform 34 metric tons of plutonium into commercial fuel. It was a key part of the United State’s plan to shrink its aging stockpiles of nuclear weapons before being shut down. But the federal court documents paint a picture of an effort that was plagued by waste, fraud and a lack of oversight for years.
According to the complaint filed by the Justice Department, employees for France-based Areva and Texas-based CB&I accepted more than $52,000 in gifts and netted several jobs for their family members from Wise Services Inc., a company that supplied material to the nuclear project. In return, the federal government alleges the employees failed to scrutinize Wise Services’ work or intentionally looked the other way as the company billed federal taxpayers for materials that were never actually delivered to the site in Aiken County. A former representative from Wise Services already pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy charges in a related case in 2017. The lawsuit, filed last week, goes a step further. The complaint asks a federal judge to make the contractors repay three times what Wise Services stole through fake invoices.
“Government contractors who line their bank accounts by receiving kickbacks or submitting fraudulent claims undermine the public’s trust,” said Jody Hunt, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “We will continue to vigorously pursue those who misuse taxpayer funds.”
CB&I, which was taken over by Houston-based McDermott International Inc., did not respond to inquires. Areva, a French company that now operates under the name Orano, stressed that the complaint was focused on actions that were beyond its control. And attorneys for Wise Services denied the company was “aware of, or took part in, any kickback scheme.” CB&I and Areva were named in a similar lawsuit filed in 2013. In that case, a whistleblower alleged the companies knew about another supplier that was delivering faulty rebar but continued to approve payments for the company anyway. The federal government eventually took back $4.6 million that was spent on that steel. But CB&I and Areva avoided the liability. The contractors might not be so fortunate this time around.
The 38-page complaint filed last week alleges CB&I and Areva employees were either incompetent or knowingly allowed Wise Services to file hundreds of fraudulent invoices. Federal authorities say the man at the center of the kickback scheme was Wise Service’s former representative Phillip Thompson. He was sentenced to 23 months in prison after pleading guilty to criminal conspiracy charges. But the lawsuit also names at least six CB&I and Areva employees who benefited from the gifts that Thompson doled out — including cash and gift cards. They have not been criminally charged.
Editorial: MOX suit is latest sorry example of alleged illegalities with government contracts
Too often, wherever federal money goes, plundering follows. The Augusta area has seen plenty of those accusations recently, and with government contractors and subcontractors on both sides of the Savannah River - and more on the way - U.S. Attorneys might have all the business they can handle around here in ferreting out inevitable fraud. High-profile cases have been prosecuted in the past several months involving bid-rigging contracts connected to Fort Gordon. Now we’re getting a closer look at the level of alleged mismanagement that likely helped kill Savannah River Site’s MOX project.
The U.S. Department of Justice is suing the SRS contractor for the now-terminated Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility - the MOX plant that would have injected new energy - and honest money - into Augusta’s economy. The feds are alleging violations of false-claims and anti-kickback laws involving contractor Aiken-based CB&I Areva MOX Services LLC, and subcontractor Wise Services of Dayton, Ohio. The National Nuclear Security Administration hired CB&I Areva to design, build and run MOX at SRS. But after years of building delays, design problems and overall project mishandling, the NNSA terminated that contract in October. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told CB&I Areva it was terminating the project’s construction license.
The Justice Department suit alleges Wise claimed bogus reimbursements for construction materials that didn’t exist, and that CB&I Areva knew about it - submitting $6.4 million worth of bad claims to the NNSA. It gets a bit confusing. CB&I Areva used to be known as Shaw Areva, but in 2013 Chicago Bridge & Iron bought the Shaw Group, spurring the name change. Wise Services, a small business contractor specializing in Energy Department projects, was one in a skein of subcontractors on the MOX project. This new suit connects with a previous federal indictment that involved an Evans man, a fraud conspiracy and more than $6 million. The Evans man, Thompson, was a senior representative for Wise, which was contracted to provide MOX labor. Starting in 2008, Thompson started buying materials from another Ohio company called Ross Hardware. One of Ross’ managers was a man named Aaron Vennefron. Vennefron formed a company called AV Security, which prosecutors say he used to submit fake invoices for nonexistent goods to Wise, which Thompson then submitted to Shaw Areva MOX Services - now CB&I Areva - for payment. The two men had been divvying up the proceeds from this arrangement since September 2009, the indictment against them read. Thompson and Vennefron, who both pleaded guilty, were sentenced last year to federal prison and ordered to pay all that money back. Now the new proceedings against Wise and CB&I Areva are just getting cranked up.
We inhabit a sad world where $400 hammers and $600 toilet seats are the most infamous identifiable examples of government waste. Remember the Packard Commission in the 1980s? A lot of that waste can get traced back to greedy contractors who attach themselves like leeches to the federal budget and siphon off our tax dollars. As we’ve said repeatedly, the government has plenty of money. The challenge is prudent spending. But sniffing out corruption is just as crucial, and vigorous prosecution will send an important message to anyone twisted enough to consider illegally fattening their wallets.
Why is nuclear power milked for profits instead of slaughter in initial stages? NRC starts off the matter by regulating the projects into insolvency.
The Indy Explains: How a secret plutonium shipment exacerbated mistrust between Nevada and Department of Energy
The secretive Nevada plutonium shipment that has spawned angry rhetoric from Nevada politicians has a history that starts with Russia. In 2000, the United States entered into a pact with Russia to set aside excess weapons-grade plutonium for civilian use in nuclear reactors. Congress then passed a law that it would turn the excess 34 metric tons of plutonium into MOX, or mix-oxide fuel, at a newly built facility in South Carolina. But that statute came with a firm deadline: If the MOX facility was not operational by 2014, the Department of Energy would be required to move one metric ton of plutonium stored at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, a nuclear facility built in the 1950s, within two years. After years of cost overruns and technical challenges, the Trump administration scrapped the facility. Meanwhile, the state of South Carolina obtained a court order in 2017 requiring the Department of Energy enforce the deadline and move the metric ton of plutonium by 2020. Less than one year later, the agency said it moved a half-ton of that plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site. The action came after months of questioning from state officials, and its furtive nature has spurred a lawsuit, driving a deep chasm between the state and the agency. Four months after South Carolina obtained the court order, Nevada officials heard that the federal government might be sending some of the plutonium to the state, according to court records. From August to November, state officials began asking questions about the potential shipment. But Nevada officials received few assurances from Department of Energy officials. “Beyond a general ‘expectation’ that any plutonium would be removed by approximately 2026-27, [a November 20] letter did not contain any of the requested assurances,” Pam Robinson, the policy director for then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, wrote in a December affidavit. What Nevada officials didn’t know: the United States had already moved the plutonium.
Plutonium thorium MOX will use more of plutonium to begin with and run longer. Unfortunately it has not moved beyond theory and experiments so far. It would also produce U233, the better reactor fissile.
If the US have excess fissile now, it should be utilised this way for optimum benefit.
If the US have excess fissile now, it should be utilised this way for optimum benefit.
NNSA chief discusses MOX pitfalls during Energy Department advisory meeting
Plowshares into swords.National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty on Tuesday rehashed the dead Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility during a meeting of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. Gordon-Hagerty described the defunct project – terminated Oct. 10, 2018 – as "horribly" over budget, adding that the facility would likely not have been finished before 2048. A 2016 U.S. Department of Energy project management report estimated MOX completion by 2048 as well. Contractors that same year estimated completion by 2029. Overall, the MOX venture – located on the Savannah River Site – "didn't make any sense," Gordon-Hagerty said. "Most notably, the materials that they would use, we don't have a customer for those types of mixed-oxide fuels," the nuclear executive continued. MOX was more than a decade in the making and was marred by ballooning costs and timeline overruns. The facility – a product of a 2000s-era denuclearization pact with Russia – was designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has described the MOX process as turning swords into plowshares. On May 10, 2018, the NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense jointly recommended repurposing MOX infrastructure for a plutonium pit production mission. "We were very fortunate that there was an already-partially constructed facility," Gordon-Hagerty said. Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores. Eighty per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. "That's less than 11 years away," Gordon-Hagerty emphasized.