By George Lobsenz

The National Nuclear Security Administration, under fire for design, cost and management problems on several major projects, has signed an agreement to have the Army Corps of Engineers serve as construction manager for the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, a first-of-its-kind plutonium disposal facility.

Officials at NNSA, the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency, last month confirmed the agreement with the Corps, which has not previously managed a highly complex nuclear project such as the pit facility, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion.

While most of the Corps’ nuclear experience is related to radioactive waste cleanup, NNSA officials said the Corps is being brought in to provide its acknowledged expertise in managing large construction projects. As such, they say the Corps will draw up cost estimates and construction schedules, handle procurement, hire and oversee subcontractors and help manage the workforce.

In that respect, NNSA officials say the Corps effectively will take the place of a private management and integration contractor–such as Bechtel or Fluor Daniel– -that NNSA typically would hire to coordinate and oversee a big construction project.

Further, NNSA officials say their agency also will have its own project director overseeing the highly specialized nuclear, chemical and engineering aspects of the pit facility, which is needed to extract and purify plutonium from surplus warhead pits so it can be fabricated into commercial reactor fuel.

NNSA officials deny the Corps is being brought in because of the substantial management problems and cost increases seen at the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, an associated plant now going up at DoE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The so-called MOX plant will manufacture plutonium-uranium, or mixed oxide (MOX), reactor fuel from surplus plutonium and uranium, with some of the plutonium feed coming from the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF), which is to be built adjacent to the MOX facility.

The MOX plant, now under construction by a consortium led by Areva and Shaw Group, has seen huge cost overruns, with its estimated price tag rising from around $1 billion to more than $4 billion.

Those cost control problems have been the subject of considerable discontent in Congress, with leaders of the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee seeking to kill the project. In addition to the soaring costs, the appropriators say that while the MOX plant was proposed to meet U.S. plutonium disposal commitments made in a 2000 U.S.-Russian nonproliferation agreement, the Russians have not moved forward with their plutonium disposal program, raising questions about whether NNSA ought to proceed with the costly MOX project.

Ultimately, the House appropriators backed off and agreed to fund the MOX plant under pressure from Senate appropriators, the House and Senate armed services committees and key members of the South Carolina congressional delegation.

However, with the PDCF representing yet another costly plutonium disposal facility, there is suspicion in some quarters on Capitol Hill that NNSA’s decision to bring in the Corps as construction manager is an effort to curry political favor among lawmakers by trading on the Corps’ generally good reputation for project management.

In contrast, NNSA and DoE are routinely ripped by lawmakers for poor cost estimating, facility design problems, schedule delays and weak oversight of contractors on major construction projects.

NNSA officials reject charges that the Corps is being brought in to boost the political fortunes of the PDCF or to paper over NNSA’s project management failings.

Rather, they say NNSA is simply trying to improve its project management by enlisting the Corps’ expertise in handling big construction programs.

“We have a challenging situation,” said one knowledgeable NNSA official. “They [Corps managers] have more experience building large complex projects.”

In particular, the official said NNSA wanted to bring the Corps in early on the PDCF because of its expertise in developing cost estimates, which has bedeviled NNSA on several projects where costs have been significantly underestimated at first.

With the design of the PDCF roughly 65 percent complete, the Corps now will take on the key task of developing a cost and schedule baseline for the project so top DOE managers can decide how to proceed.

While acknowledging that the Corps did not have experience with big nuclear facility construction, the NNSA official said that did not mean that NNSA was simply adding to project overhead on the PDCF by bringing in the Corps.

“We are not adding another layer [of project management],” the official said. “We are hiring a different type of resource than what we normally have.”

Asked about the PDCF agreement with NNSA, a spokeswoman for the Corps said while the Corps has done independent reviews of cost and construction quality on various NNSA projects, “this particular type of facility is a first for [the Corps’] Savannah District [office].”

As for the Corps’ experience on big nuclear projects, the spokeswoman said: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has expertise in handling large, complex construction projects of various kinds which we will apply to this type of facility. We understand the special concerns of nuclear facility construction and feel we will be highly successful. We will make special efforts to hire experienced nuclear personnel to work beside experienced Corps construction and project managers.”

The spokeswoman said that under the interagency agreement with NNSA, the Corps will be reimbursed for its direct costs in managing the PDCF project, but would receive no other fees.