Nuclear Nonproliferation:

DOE Needs to Address Uncertainties with and Strengthen Independent Safety Oversight of Its Plutonium Disposition Program

GAO-10-378: Published: Mar 26, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 26, 2010.

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The end of the Cold War left the United States with a surplus of weapons-grade plutonium, which poses proliferation and safety risks. Much of this material is found in a key nuclear weapon component known as a pit. The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium by fabricating it into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for domestic nuclear reactors. To do so, DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is constructing two facilities--a MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) and a Waste Solidification Building (WSB)--at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. GAO was asked to assess the (1) cost and schedule status of the MFFF and WSB construction projects, (2) status of NNSA's plans for pit disassembly and conversion, (3) status of NNSA's plans to obtain customers for MOX fuel from the MFFF, and (4) actions that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and DOE have taken to provide independent nuclear safety oversight. GAO reviewed NNSA documents and project data, toured DOE facilities, and interviewed officials from DOE, NRC, and nuclear utilities.

The MFFF and WSB projects both appear to be meeting their cost targets for construction, but the MFFF project has experienced schedule delays. Specifically, the MFFF and WSB projects are on track to meet their respective construction cost estimates of $4.9 billion and $344 million. However, the MFFF project has experienced some delays over the past 2 years, due in part to the delivery of reinforcing bars that did not meet nuclear quality standards. Project officials said that they expect to recover from these delays by the end of 2010 and plan for the start of MFFF operations on schedule in 2016. The WSB project appears to be on schedule. NNSA is reconsidering its alternatives for establishing a pit disassembly and conversion capability. However, it seems unlikely that NNSA will be able to establish this capability in time to produce the plutonium feedstock needed to operate the MFFF, due to the amount of time and effort needed to reconsider alternatives and construct a facility as well as the amount of uncertainty associated with NNSA's current plans. NNSA had previously planned to build a stand-alone facility near the MFFF construction site to disassemble pits and convert the plutonium into a form suitable for use by the MFFF. However, NNSA is now considering a plan to combine this capability with another project at an existing facility at the Savannah River Site. NNSA officials could not estimate when the agency will reach a final decision or establish more definitive cost and schedule estimates for the project. However, NNSA's new alternative depends on an aggressive, potentially unrealistic schedule. In addition, NNSA has not sufficiently planned for the maturation of critical technologies to be used in pit disassembly and conversion operations, some of which are being tested at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. NNSA has one potential customer for most of its MOX fuel, but outreach to other utilities may be insufficient. NNSA is in discussions with the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide MOX fuel for five reactors. NNSA plans to offer several incentives to potential customers, including offering to sell MOX fuel at a discount relative to the price of uranium fuel. In interviews with the nation's nuclear utilities, GAO found that while many of the utilities expressed interest in NNSA's proposed incentives, the majority of utilities also expressed little interest in becoming MOX fuel customers. This suggests that NNSA's outreach to utilities may not be sufficient. NRC is currently reviewing the MFFF's license application and has identified several issues related to construction. However, oversight of the MFFF and the WSB by DOE's independent nuclear safety entities has been limited. For example, DOE's Office of Health, Safety, and Security has not conducted any oversight activities or participated in any project reviews of the WSB, despite the WSB's status as a high-hazard nuclear facility. In addition, NNSA's Chief of Defense Nuclear Safety has not conducted any nuclear safety oversight activities for the MFFF project and has not conducted all oversight activities for the WSB project that are required by DOE order.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the WSB and similar projects receive consistent nuclear safety oversight that is independent from the DOE program offices, the Secretary of Energy should revise DOE Order 413.3A to provide that the Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS) participate in key project reviews for the WSB and similar high-hazard facilities prior to the beginning of construction activities regardless of their status as nonmajor projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE revised Order 413 to modify the role of the Office of Health, Safety, and Security as we recommended.

    Recommendation: To address uncertainties associated with NNSA's plans to establish a pit disassembly and conversion capability, the Administrator of the NNSA should conduct additional outreach activities to better inform utilities about the MOX fuel program and related incentives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to DOE's 60-day response letter, DOE concurred with this recommendation and has several actions underway in response. DOE is negotiating a contract with AREVA that will enable AREVA to market MOX fuel of their own design, and Westinghouse and Hitachi are preparing proposals that would allow them to do the same. NNSA is also creating a backup inventory of low-enriched uranium to serve as fuel supply assurance to potential customers. DOE expects this backup supply to be available by 2013. We will continue to monitor the success of these activities as its contracting approach moves forward and for now this recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: To address uncertainties associated with NNSA's plans to establish a pit disassembly and conversion capability, the Administrator of the NNSA should develop a technology maturation plan for the pit disassembly and conversion mission that (1) includes all critical technologies to be used in pit disassembly and conversion operations and (2) provides details (including preliminary cost and schedule estimates) on planned testing and development activities to bring each critical technology up to a sufficient level of maturity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to its 60-day response letter, DOE concurred with this recommendation. According to the letter, DOE plans to complete a technology readiness assessment for the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility prior to the Critical Decision 1 milestone, which is planned for the summer of 2011. In light of this planned action, DOE considers this recommendation closed. Until this readiness assessment is completed this recommendation will remain open.

    Recommendation: To address uncertainties associated with NNSA's plans to establish a pit disassembly and conversion capability, the Administrator of the NNSA should develop a plan to mitigate the likely shortfall in plutonium oxide feedstock for the MFFF prior to the start of pit disassembly operations. This plan should include, at a minimum, the following five items: (1) the actions needed to ensure that the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) project will meet its existing production goals, and the cost and schedule associated with any needed expansion of the project; (2) an assessment of how much additional plutonium material, including fuel-grade plutonium, is available within the DOE complex for use as feedstock for the MFFF; (3) an assessment of the effect on the design and safety of the MFFF from the use of fuel-grade plutonium as feedstock; (4) an assessment of potential changes to the MOX fuel production schedule and the effect of these changes on the cost and schedule for operating the MFFF; and (5) an assessment of the cost and schedule associated with obtaining a limited but sufficient pit disassembly process to produce feedstock for the MFFF.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to its 60-day response letter, DOE concurred with this recommendation and has several actions planned in response. First, DOE plans to submit a request in the summer of 2011 that will include options for starting some process options at ARIES early to provide plutonium feedstock. Second, Los Alamos National Lab is scheduled to produce 50 kilograms of plutonium annually, beginning in 2012 and running through 2017, to meet its obligation to deliver feedstock to the MOX plant. Third, DOE plans to have utility fuel supply contracts in place by 2013 which it believes will provide sufficient time to determine options for the timing and quantity of MOX fuel production. In light of these ongoing actions, DOE considers this recommendation closed. This recommendation will remain open until there is evidence that these actions have been completed.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the WSB and similar projects receive consistent nuclear safety oversight that is independent from the DOE program offices, the Administrator of NNSA should ensure that the Chief of Defense Nuclear Safety (CDNS) conducts oversight activities to the extent called for by DOE Order 413.3A and establishes a formal, standardized approach to reviewing safety documentation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE revised Order 413.3B to revise the role of the Chief of Defense for Nuclear Safety as we recommended.

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