April 22, 2015

Energy Dept. Withholds MOX Report; Summary Reveals Major Cost Estimate Increases

Report Also Finds Alternatives Significantly Cheaper

WASHINGTON (April 22, 2015)—This morning, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a press release to publicize the fact that the Department of Energy was expected to release a new, independent report on the mixed oxide nuclear fuel program. Later in the day, UCS learned that DOE has labeled the report—conducted by the Aerospace Corporation—“official use only,” and may not make it publicly available for months.

In the meantime, UCS has obtained a one-page summary of the report findings, which can be found here.

The summary confirms that the report estimates the life-cycle cost of the MOX program in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars at a minimum of $47.5 billion. However, it clarifies that this is the “to-go” life-cycle cost estimate, which excludes the approximately $4 billion that has already been spent on the program. It also does not include decommissioning, demolition and return-to-greenfield costs. With that in mind, it should be compared to DOE’s 2014 to-go estimate of $25.1 billion. In other words, the report estimates a price tag for the cost of completing the program that is nearly 90 percent more.

Even more eye-opening is the fact that this estimate only applies if annual program expenditures are capped at $500 million per year, which is about $150 million more than Congress is apparently willing to provide. If one assumes a funding cap of $375 million per year, the MOX plant would not start operating until fiscal year 2100 and the to-go life-cycle cost estimated by Aerospace would amount to a whopping $110.4 billion. Because this case corresponds more closely to the current and projected future funding situation for the program, this estimate is the more appropriate one to use.

The main factor underlying this dramatic increase in the cost estimate is Aerospace used standard procedures to account for the potential costs associated with program risks that could cause delays. Aerospace assessed that the complex MOX program has a high level of programmatic risk.

The report also provides a revised figure for the life-cycle cost of the “downblending” plutonium disposition alternative we described in this morning’s press release. Although this cost estimate also increased compared to DOE’s 2014 estimate, the downblending option is still by far cheaper than the MOX program and has far less programmatic risk.

Aerospace estimates the to-go life-cycle cost of downblending at $17.2 billion, with an estimated completion date of FY 2049. This is nearly three times less than the MOX option's low estimate and more than six times less than its high estimate. The downblending estimate includes the costs associated with terminating the MOX program.

“Unfortunately, further details underlying these estimates will not be forthcoming until DOE authorizes release of a publicly available version of the report,” said UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman. “But all indications are that the estimated cost of the MOX program will continue to rise dramatically. This program is simply not sustainable, and the sooner it is stopped, the less taxpayer money will be wasted.”