The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) may soon be moving on from its nine-year-long design phase, but in exactly what direction it will be moving remains to be seen.
Last week, the contractor managing and operating the Y-12 National Security Complex, Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS), awarded a subcontract to its parent company, Bechtel National, Inc., for the ongoing design and future construction of the UPF.
This is particularly troubling as Bechtel National does not have the best track record. Bechtel is currently the prime contractor on the Vitrification Plant at the Hanford Site in Washington, another Energy Department billion-dollar boondoggle that has more than tripled in cost over the past 12 years. In 2012 the Federal Project Director for the plant told Department supervisors that Bechtel National should immediately be removed from its role as Design Authority, listing 34 questionable technical decisions. Furthermore, both the Energy Department’s Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have raised concerns about Bechtel’s management of the project.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has been monitoring the UPF project since its inception in 2005. The facility is a proposed replacement for several aging uranium processing buildings at Y-12, and was originally supposed to cost between $600 million and $1 billion. Since then costs have skyrocketed. Independent estimates now place the cost anywhere between $11 billion and $19 billion, though the official estimate from National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion.
According to Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel, the decision to award the subcontract to Bechtel National, Inc. “is supposed to bring more of Bechtel’s engineering and construction expertise to the multibillion-dollar project without amping up the management fee or adding to the overall cost of UPF.”
Whether or not Bechtel will do a good job and will actually keep costs from going up remains to be seen. With Bechtel’s questionable history managing Hanford’s Vitrification Plant, perhaps they aren’t the best choice for the UPF, which has already suffered significant delays, design blunders, and astronomical cost increases.
While the UPF was originally planned to replace several Y-12 facilities, the delays and rising costs have caused some of the original scope to be deferred. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that the NNSA is reevaluating the original plan for the UPF and will examine the possibility of using existing facilities at Y-12 until smaller facilities can be built, a recommendation POGO made in 2013.
The NNSA did not respond to POGO’s requests for comment. Jason Bohne, a spokesman for CNS, did confirm that the subcontract with Bechtel National was included in their original bid to manage and operate the Y-12 site. However, Bohne was not able to provide any specific details about the project’s reevaluated scope or the expected cost and timeline. Without these details the public remains in the dark about the status of this multi-billion dollar project and what exactly Bechtel National will be managing.