DOE IG: Delays Could Disrupt Enriched Uranium Operations

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has begun a massive effort to modernize U.S. nuclear capabilities and infrastructure, but is the agency spending taxpayer dollars wisely?

Three years ago, the Project On Government Oversight released a report on the NNSA’s plans to build a brand new Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex. In that report, we found that the government was planning to spend billions of dollars on a facility it may not even need.

The Uranium Processing Facility is the proposed replacement for several aging 1940s era buildings at the Y-12 Complex. However, a new report from the Department of Energy Inspector General identifies a major problem with the NNSA’s plans. Due to issues with the NNSA’s management of the project, as well as initial delays in design and construction, the facility will not be complete in time to take over enriched uranium operations from the aging buildings it is meant to replace, potentially affecting the Y-12 Complex’s ability to meet mission requirements.

The NNSA and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board have raised serious concerns about continuing to use 1940s era buildings for uranium processing work. The NNSA has addressed some of these concerns by conducting several facility upgrades that will ensure the complex can continue the work until 2021, but the new Uranium Processing Facility will not be able to take over until 2025. The DOE IG found that the NNSA had no additional upgrades planned to ensure operations could continue for the intervening four years.

Compounding this problem, the DOE IG reports that Y-12 management and the NNSA knew that the Uranium Processing Facility’s completion date would be delayed back in 2010, but failed to incorporate that delay into the overall enriched uranium operations strategy until 2014.

The DOE IG also found that the aging facilities had an extensive backlog of deferred maintenance totaling over $39.4 million. This amount isn’t even an accurate tally, however. According to the report, Y-12 management and the NNSA were unable to provide a total estimate of repairs as the information was “tracked in multiple information systems that were not integrated.” So no one actually knows how much money would be required to make sure these facilities can continue to support the U.S.’s nuclear mission.

The DOE IG ultimately concluded that, “if the gap between Y-12’s mitigating actions and transition of operations from the [existing infrastructure] is not addressed, there is a potential risk that a maintenance event may significantly affect production or that a safety event could endanger personnel and the public.”

The new Uranium Processing Facility is part of an approximately $1 trillion nuclear modernization effort over the next 20 years. Yet, if this project is any indication, the actual price tag will be much, much higher.

The Y-12 Uranium Processing Facility was originally supposed to cost between $600 million and $1 billion. But in the 11 years since then, costs have skyrocketed. An independent cost estimate in 2011 found that the actual cost could be between $11 and 19 billion. In response, the NNSA has reduced the project’s scope and is attempting to complete the project within a $6.5 billion budget.

One of the reasons for this cost growth is a design flaw discovered in 2012. After spending $500 million on the facility’s design alone, NNSA found that the building wouldn’t be tall enough to house the necessary uranium processing equipment. The cost to re-design and raise the ceiling 13 feet added an additional $540 million onto the price tag.

This latest report from the DOE IG does nothing to inspire confidence that the NNSA has learned from past mistakes.