The uranium processing fiasco

By Peter Stockton, Lydia Dennett | September 25, 2013

The Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are up to their old tricks again, convincing Congress and taxpayers alike to spend billions of dollars on yet another poorly designed and mismanaged construction project. This time it’s the Uranium Capabilities Replacement Project, formerly known as the Uranium Processing Facility, at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The new facility would replace several uranium operations facilities at Y-12, but cost overruns and construction delays—not to mention concerns about the design and mission of the project—should have the NNSA scrambling to find alternatives to this mutibillion-dollar boondoggle.

When the project was first sold to the Congress in 2006, it was expected to cost between $600 million and $1 billion and to be completed in 2018. But as with so many Energy Department projects before it, poor contractor oversight and inaccurate cost estimates contributed to astonishing cost increases and schedule delays. After it was discovered in late 2012 that the facility’s ceiling would have to be raised by 13 feet to accommodate the uranium processing equipment that would go inside it, $500 million was added to the price tag for re-design, and the project was delayed 13 months. And this is just one extra cost; the Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that the facility will eventually cost between $6.5 billion and $11.6 billion. Shockingly, it is not expected to be fully operational until 2038.

A history of mismanagement: Building nuclear facilities on the taxpayer's dime

It is time for alternatives to be fully explored. The Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, has the capacity to take on one of the most important missions of the would-be Uranium Capabilities Replacement Project: the recertification of highly enriched uranium secondaries, a key component of a nuclear warhead. Not only would shifting this mission to Pantex save tens of millions of dollars; it would also reduce the transportation of nuclear weapons components across the country and fit well with the Pantex mission. The plant is already doing similar work on plutonium pit re-qualification.

The Y-12 site has alternatives that could take on part of the proposed project's mission. The recently completed Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at Y-12, a storage facility for highly enriched uranium (HEU) and the companion building to the proposed Uranium Capabilities Replacement Project, is only 57 percent full. Most of the HEU stored there has no future military mission, and if more of it was downblended into low enriched uranium for use in commercial reactors, it could generate up to $23 billion for the US treasury. This would leave the brand new HEU facility practically empty; with some modifications, it can probably take on some of the project’s missions that cannot be performed at Pantex. Also, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into upgrades and fixes for other uranium operations facilities at Y-12 that the new Uranium Capabilities Replacement Project is meant to replace. Yet the NNSA still insists that these buildings are genuinely decrepit and falling apart at the seams. Where are these millions going, if not to fix the problems? And if the problems are being fixed, why can’t the buildings continue to be used?

But perhaps the most baffling part of the Uranium Capabilities Replacement Project boondoggle is one basic and disturbing fact: It remains unclear what the facility is expected to accomplish. The Energy Department and NNSA have claimed that, to keep the nation’s nuclear weapons reliable, they need the capacity to remanufacture up to 200 uranium secondaries a year. But there hasn’t been a single independent study to verify this number. This is an extremely concerning lack of documentation; the NNSA made a similar assertion about a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, which was supposedly needed to manufacture 450 plutonium pits per year. But as costs skyrocketed on that project, the number of pits the NNSA said would be needed to refurbish warheads for the nuclear arsenal plummeted to less than 80 per year. But there has been no requirement for new remanufactured pits yet.  Even though more than $250 million had already been invested, the facility has essentially been canceled as alternatives are explored. Without a thorough, independent, and unclassified study on the lifetime of uranium secondaries, there is no way to tell how long they will last, and therefore how many per year will need to be remanufactured. It is ludicrous to begin to build such an expensive facility when it is entirely unclear what capacity it should have.

A look into the Energy Department’s past provides many reasons not to trust its word in these types of matters. The department has thrown billions of dollars into projects that are never completed (see slideshow above). In this fiscally constrained time, it is absurd to ask taxpayers to fund yet another behemoth Energy Department facility that might, actually, not be needed. Instead of barreling full steam ahead toward an uncertain but extremely costly future, the Energy Department and the NNSA should take a deep breath and a long step back, allowing time for the study needed to determine if an $11.6 billion Uranium Capabilities Replacement Project is really the best solution to a problem that, as yet, has not even been defined.

Editor's note: This op-ed was inspired by the Project on Government Oversight's report, Uranium Processing Facility: When You're in a Hole, Just Stop Digging, published on September 25, 2013.

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