- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - It will take hundreds of millions more dollars to successfully operate a program in South Carolina to convert weapons-grade nuclear material into reactor fuel, while some say an alternative method could do it differently and more cheaply, according to a report commissioned by U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.

The report, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, concludes that the program that includes the mixed-oxide fuel facility at the Savannah River Site needs up to $800 million annually over the next two to three years to be viable. That’s contrasted to the roughly $400 million currently allocated to the effort.

The issue affects an agreement with Russia to convert both nations’ spent nuclear materials. The facility that’s supposed to do the job at the Savannah River Site is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. Construction began in 2007 at the Savannah River Site as part of an agreement with Russia to produce MOX, or mixed-oxide fuel, at the sprawling Department of Energy complex on the Savannah River.

The Obama administration said last year it wanted to put the project on hold, and its overall work is now expected to cost about $8 billion.

The report contrasted MOX with another method known as downblending, which involves mixing the plutonium with another material to stabilize it. That process, while less expensive, also involves cooperation with a variety of federal facilities, including a repository in New Mexico where the canisters would be stored.

The agreement with Russia would also need to be amended to allow for scheduling changes if an alternative method were used, according to the report.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which provided the report to the AP, said in a written statement that it’s time to finally end the mixed-oxide fuel program in favor of an alternative method, like downblending.

“Congress should stop obstructing the Energy Department from shutting down the MOX program and allow it to ramp up the downblending program at the Savannah River Site. Otherwise, the government will continue to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year,” Edwin Lyman of the Union for Concerned Scientists said in a statement. “The bottom line is the MOX program is too expensive and too risky to continue. The Energy Department’s own study supports that conclusion.”

In its own report in January, the Union of Concerned Scientists recommended that the Energy Department shut down the MOX facility entirely and ship the surplus plutonium to the New Mexico facility.

The contractor in charge of building the MOX facility deferred questions on the report to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

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Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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