A U.S. effort to dispose of 34 tons of surplus plutonium from scrapped nuclear weapons has been long been stymied by cost overruns and technical problems. But now it seems the challenges to proceeding are even steeper than anticipated, with a new Energy Department study saying that a startling, year old cost estimate may still be billions of dollars short.
The older study led by John MacWilliams, an advisor to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, estimated the lifetime cost of the so-called Mixed Oxide (MOX) plutonium elimination project in South Carolina at over $25.1 billion.
But the new study, conducted by a U.S. Air Force-funded research and development center known as the Aerospace Corporation, says the effort could cost at least $30.7 billion to complete, according to a summary that was presented to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
After the summary was obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear safety advocacy group, Energy Department officials confirmed that the study concluded this cost might even balloon to $47.5 billion.
The higher pricetag would ensue if, as MacWilliams’ study assumed last year, annual spending on the program is capped at $500 million annually, which would drag out its completion. If spending were limited to $375 million a year — an amount close to what Congress has recently appropriated — the cost of the overall project could eventually reach $110.4 billion, the summary stated.
None of these figures include the sums spent so far to build a plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to mix the plutonium with uranium and produce fuel for U.S. commercial reactors. The plant is about 65 percent complete and $4.1 billion has already been spent, according to the Energy Department.
An alternative plan to turn the plutonium into reactor fuel: simply diluting the plutonium by mixing it with a classified material and burying it, could cost up to $17.2 billion, the document states.