The cost of converting swords into plowshares is becoming enormously expensive in South Carolina.
According to a highly critical status report the federal Department of Energy released in December 2005, the future of the proposed mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility slated to be constructed at the Savannah River Site may be in jeopardy.
Long the bane of local, regional, national, and international environmentalists, the proposed MOX facility would convert weapons-grade plutonium into a fissionable fuel to be used in nuclear power plants here and abroad.
A functioning facility would allow nations armed with nuclear weapons, like the United States and Russia, to turn their warheads into electricity while disarming the world. Now, thanks to the DoE's report, the question becomes, "But at what cost?"
And, according to the report, the answer is an astronomical one.
In 2002, the projected cost of the contentious facility was $1 billion. By 2004, due to delays dealing with the Russian half of the project as well as management problems, the cost of the SRS site had soared to $3.5 billion.
Adding insult to expenditure, the report also states that nearly half of the $1 billion had been already been spent just on design, and ground hadn't even been broken. Additionally, it appears that the design phase was still only 70 percent completed.
According to the report, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the federal agency overseeing the design and construction phases, experienced serious project management weaknesses because it failed "to establish an effective performance baseline" with the contractor — a three-way conglomeration of Duke Power, French company COGEMA, and construction firm Stone and Webber (DCSS).
A spokesperson for DCSS, Neil McCraw, declines to comment on the report, stating that his company is "restricted" from doing so by the contract it signed with the federal government.
Among a litany of complaints, the report criticized the NNSA for awarding a "cost-plus fixed-fee" contract to DCSS "despite the contract's inherent high risk of cost growth." For every complaint, the report issues a potential solution.
NNSA spokesperson Brian Wilkes issued the following statement:
"NNSA agrees with the recommendations in the ... report and has already begun implementing them. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the MOX facility is part of a first-of-a-kind cooperative nonproliferation program focused on disposing of surplus weapon-grade plutonium in the United States and Russia in parallel. No other federal program is dependent on parallel progress with Russia and this requirement has imposed tremendous challenges. In spite of these challenges, we are making significant progress and are planning to begin construction of the ... MOX facility this year."
On the phone, Wilkes adds that the $1 billion was just what the agency had budgeted for the first year, and that it expected all along to make additional, yearly requests to Congress for more funds.
Regardless, because of the setbacks, there appears to be no way the plant will be operational next year, even though construction still could, according to Wilkes, begin this spring.
"This comes as no surprise to me that this facility is having huge cost overruns," says Tom Clement, the senior adviser with Greenpeace International's anti-nuclear campaign, who came to town last year, shadowing shipments of weapons-grade plutonium from France to South Carolina.
"I think that what's going on is not unusual for how the Department of Energy functions — when they give their first presentation on anything, their estimates always turn out to be wildly below what a facility will actually cost."
While he and his campaign take great issue with any weapons-grade material finding a home in the future other than in the imagination, Clement hopes the exploding costs of the proposed facility will attract the attention of the remaining fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress.
Jennifer Turner, a local anti-nuke activist with Charleston Peace who joined Clement's vigil in the Charleston Harbor, says that despite the amount of money that has been spent on designing the MOX plant, there are still no answers forthcoming from the federal government about how the plant's dangerous waste will be handled or stored.
"I don't trust them," she says of the various federal agencies, like the DoE and the NNSA, with their hands in the regulatory pot. "You ask them serious questions and they just say, 'Everything's just going fine.'
"Why should we trust them to stay on budget now, nowthat they say they are very, very sure they can keep to just $3.5 billion?"