Construction flaws emerge
By 2005, troubles at the Savannah plant had themselves begun to proliferate, however. That year, Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman disclosed that technical obstacles and poor planning had caused costs to more than triple. The design itself was flawed: It turned out that the facility needed nearly 1,400 miles of electrical cabling, not 735 miles; it also needed stronger and more costly engineering supports.
Friedman said lingering design problems had consumed nearly half the construction funds, and that only a handful of Energy Department employees were overseeing it. Monthly reports on the work were confusing and misleading, and budgets lagged months behind. Mistakes in the purchase of supplies also started to pile up, with a large delivery of the wrong steel alone costing $680,000 to correct, according to a report by Friedman in 2009.
The contractors had little incentive to find efficient solutions, Friedman said, because the NNSA had ignored warnings and signed a contract in which the firms passed on to the government whatever costs they incurred.
When Obama took office, there was little consideration of alternatives to the Bush administration's pact, which was not yet signed. It took until April 2010 to finally nail down all the details in a deal between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that contained a new U.S. concession.
Under the original deal in 2000, Russian reactors used in the program were essentially locked up: The country could not extract residual plutonium from the fuel burned in those reactors for several decades, a significant nonproliferation achievement.
But the Obama administration agreed to Russia's demand that it immediately extract some plutonium from fuel burned in one of the breeders used in the program. The deal also still called for the United States to share technical and financial support that Russia could use to develop its breeder reactors. Russia promised, however, to accumulate new plutonium only for civilian power rather than new weapons.
Arms control advocates -- and a few administration officials who privately express regrets -- say that as a result, Washington will be helping Russia expand its plutonium production in the future, if it chooses, or help others expand theirs.
"Down the road, we could see the MOX program in Russia lead to the creation of more separated plutonium, not less," said Tom Z. Collina, a senior analyst with the Arms Control Association. "That's one of the dangers of the agreement. It could ultimately defeat the original purpose ... which is to eliminate stocks of separated plutonium."
Anatoli Diakov, a Russian physicist who founded and directed an arms control and energy study center in Moscow, said in an interview that no matter what the United States does, Russia "is going to use the plutonium fuel" in breeder reactors.
Breeder reactors, Russia's nuclear energy chief said last year, "are the basis of our competitiveness" in the global contest for nuclear plant construction contracts. The country is now discussing the sale of two to China.