Note: This story was last updated at 2:30 p.m.
KNOXVILLE—Federal officials have expressed concerns about increasing cost projections and delayed construction dates for a new Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex, and a so-called Red Team has drafted an alternative approach that could keep the project at $6.5 billion or less—and help workers get out of the aging Building 9212 at Y-12 by 2025.
Thom Mason, the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, chaired the Red Team, and he is expected to brief federal officials in Washington, D.C., today (Monday) on the team’s report. The report will then go to Congress, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a media briefing at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center at the University of Tennessee on Friday.
Among the questions that could be answered are which old production buildings at Y-12 should be replaced and which can be refurbished. Y-12 was built to enrich uranium as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II as the United States raced to beat Germany to build the world’s first atomic weapons.
On Friday, Moniz said Building 9212 is a very old building doing very difficult work. Y-12 continues to play a key role in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, and the 811-acre plant stores most of the nation’s highly enriched uranium.
“At some point, we just need a new infrastructure,” Moniz said. “They have outlined a path.”
He said creative approaches were needed for the UPF project, which has had projected cost estimates exceed $10 billion and the completion date pushed back to 2038.
“We have to get control of these project costs and schedules,” Moniz said. “We’ve got to be more creative in how we design these facilities.”
Mason said the Red Team, which only had about three months to complete its work, did not design a building. But they did outline a strategy.
Bruce Held, former acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees work at Y-12, asked Mason to assemble the Red Team in January and recommend an alternative approach for the UPF project by April 15.
“The administrator’s memorandum provided specific objectives for this alternative approach, including the replacement of Building 9212 capabilities no later than 2025 for no more than $6.5 billion, the preservation of existing design elements to the extent practical, the consideration of newer metal purification technologies with lower space demands, and the use of the same location near the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, while considering the eventual consolidation of the remaining enriched uranium capabilities to enable reduction of the protected area footprint,” the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board reported in January.
On Friday, Mason said there were two elements critical to completing the task. First, some members of the team were from Los Alamos National Laboratory. That could be helpful because federal officials have said some lessons learned from the project to replace the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility at LANL could be applied to the UPF, including the use of a more modular, or phased, approach.
Second, Mason said, the Y-12 team has also been looking at alternatives.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said the Red Team approach is “very promising” and could serve as a model for DOE to rein in the costs of almost all the largest government construction projects.
“Oak Ridge may have found the solution for out-of-control energy projects, showing the federal government how to keep them on time and on budget,” said Alexander, who serves as the lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development. “The uranium facility will create many good jobs in Tennessee, and it will do so in a safe working environment while supporting our national security. But it also costs a lot, and using the Red Team’s process to rein in design and construction costs at the uranium processing facility and other massive construction projects could be a good way to protect hard-working taxpayers in Tennessee and around the country.”
Alexander, Moniz, and Mason spoke to media at the Baker Center after a private briefing by Mason on the results of the Red Team’s review. Mason and his team used a similar review process to the one that has made the Office of Science the only office in the Department of Energy that successfully manages efficient and cost-effective construction projects, Alexander said.
Alexander said the UPF, which would process uranium for nuclear weapon systems, said the project had an initial cost estimate of $650 million, but the current projected cost estimate is $4 billion to $6.5 billion.
The UPF could be connected to the $549 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, which began operating several years ago, and replace several old buildings at Y-12, part of a years-long effort to update the site, consolidate operations, and cut the plant’s high-security “footprint.” The building would be involved in a range of work, including nuclear nonproliferation, weapons dismantlement and refurbishment, and naval nuclear reactor and medical isotope programs.
It could be the single largest investment by the federal government in Tennessee since World War II.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Republican whose district includes Oak Ridge, cited the old age of some of the Y-12 buildings, including in the production area. During a recent House Energy and Water Subcommittee hearing that featured Held, the congressman cited the recent partial collapse of a concrete ceiling in Building 9204-2 in Y-12‘s production area.
“This just highlights the need to build the UPF,” Fleischmann said Friday. He said he is working with Alexander to make sure project funding is available.
“It’s clear that 9212 is antiquated,” Fleischmann said.
In a press release, Alexander cited other DOE projects that could benefit from Red Team reviews like that used for the UPF:
- MOX (Mixed Oxide Fuel) Facility in Savannah River, S.C., which would use plutonium from nuclear weapons for fuel in commercial nuclear power plants
Initial cost estimate: $4.8 billion
Current projected cost estimate: $13 billion to $25 billion
- ITER, an international project seeking to design and build a fusion power reactor
Initial cost estimate: $1.1 billion to $2.2 billion
Current projected cost estimate: $4 billion to $6 billion
- Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility in Los Alamos, N.M, which would produce plutonium pits for nuclear weapons
Initial cost estimate: $400 million
Current projected cost estimate: $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion
Alexander has said the uranium facility should be subject to external review, that design should be 90 percent complete before construction begins, and that officials involved with the project should meet regularly with Alexander and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development, the senator’s office said in a press release.
Mason has said the Red Team included about 25 experts from across the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration complex, including the Office of Science, and energy labs such as Savannah River and Idaho. The experts have relevant experience in areas ranging from chemistry and the needs of weapons labs to project management and safety and security.
Mason led the project to build the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL before he became lab director.
Moniz was at UT on Friday as the featured speaker in the third Baker Distinguished Lecture on Energy and the Environment. He discussed DOE work in Oak Ridge, including the UPF project, environmental cleanup, and clean energy and scientific research.
More information will be added as it becomes available.