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POGO Sends Letter Questioning Mission of Nuclear Facility

This morning the Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to the House and Senate Energy Appropriations Committees raising concerns about the proposed Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 nuclear complex in Tennessee.

The UPF was originally expected to cost between $600 million and $1 billion and be complete in 2018. Now, nine years later, the official cost estimate for the project has jumped to between $4.2 and $6.5 billion. Independent analysis of the project places the cost even higher: the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation estimates the UPF could cost up to $19 billion without being fully operational until 2030. Although almost $1 billion has been spent on the design phase alone, construction has not yet started.

In 2013, POGO wrote a report on this multibillion-dollar boondoggle citing cost overruns, design flaws, delays, and a questionable mission as reasons a project review was needed before moving forward with construction. But it wasn’t until recently that POGO learned that one of the missions cited as justification for building this facility may not even exist.

The UPF is intended to replace several aging buildings at the Y-12 complex currently performing uranium processing work. This work includes the manufacturing and remanufacturing of Canned Sub-Assemblies, which is the part of a thermonuclear warhead that houses highly enriched uranium.

However, the National Nuclear Security Administration has not publically revealed how many Canned Sub-Assemblies will require manufacturing or remanufacturing in the coming years, which makes it impossible to accurately determine what capacity will be required of the proposed UPF and if the current “big box” design is truly necessary.

According to POGO sources, one of the justifications for building UPF is that several Canned Sub-Assemblies require remanufacturing due to a hydride problem. Hydrides are formed when a small amount of moisture gets into the Canned Sub-Assembly, which would reduce the yield of a nuclear warhead. However, even if a warhead with a hydride were to be detonated, the results would still be catastrophic, and several times more devastating than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

POGO consulted several current and former government officials about the existence of a hydride problem and they said that this is a “non-issue.” Thus it remains unclear exactly how many Canned Sub-Assemblies will truly need to be remanufactured, and therefore what capacity is required of the UPF. Even estimates provided to Congress are uncertain, according to one congressional source.

Congress should look more closely at this issue than it has. Just a few years ago the National Nuclear Security Administration tried to justify constructing a similar kind of facility at the Los Alamos National Lab: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). The National Nuclear Security Administration claimed it needed the capacity to build 450 plutonium pits per year. But when questioned the National Nuclear Security Administration dropped the number to 125, then 80. Funding for the CMRR-NF is currently on hold as alternatives are explored. 

The UPF seems like a re-run of a bad movie. POGO’s letter to Congress requested an independent study to assess exactly how many warheads will require remanufactured Canned Sub-Assemblies. Until the National Nuclear Security Administration can justify the need for this multibillion-dollar facility, funding should be placed on hold.

By: Lydia Dennett
Investigator, POGO

lydia dennett Lydia Dennett is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia works on safety and security of nuclear weapons and power facilities, foreign lobbying and influence, and works with Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Nuclear Weapons Complex Oversight

Authors: Lydia Dennett

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