Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Energy Department Looks for Alternatives to UPF

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will begin to explore alternatives to building the proposed Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 nuclear weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Last year the Project On Government Oversight released a report on this NNSA construction boondoggle, which began in 2006 as an effort to replace the aging uranium processing facilities at Y-12, particularly the 1940s-era Building 9212. POGO highlighted UPF’s massive cost overruns—the price tag has ballooned by over 980 percent—and schedule delays that have pushed the completion date past 2025. We believe that more information is required to determine if this replacement facility is truly necessary to support the future needs of the nuclear weapons complex and have offered several alternatives to UPF.

We are not alone in our concerns. The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance released a special report in October 2013 on safety and security issues related to the UPF project. Furthermore several think tanks and other organizations have recently released reports on the growing cost and shrinking need for such an inflated nuclear weapons complex.

The final straw may have been a report from the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, which found that the UPF as currently designed will cost as much as $19 billion and that there is no scenario under which completion would be completed by 2025.

The NNSA is finally taking note. An NNSA statement to Frank Munger at the Knoxville News Sentinel yesterday confirmed the agency’s commitment to developing alternative scenarios to the bloated UPF. This could mean that the NNSA will look into a modular approach, focusing on building smaller facilities to replace each of the older buildings separately and beginning with the aging Building 9212. This approach has also been suggested as a cheaper alternative to the costly Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a project that faced similar cost and schedule problems.

Current funding proposals for the UPF project reinforce the agency's statement. This week, Congress is poised to pass a massive spending bill, called an omnibus, to keep the government funded for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2014. This omnibus will continue to fund the UPF project but reduced the amount in light of the Department of Energy’s commitment to considering alternatives to UPF. $17 million was cut from the NNSA’s FY 2014 budget request but $309 million was still allocated for the project.

Although it is heartening to see the NNSA taking steps to address the problems highlighted by POGO and others as well as find cheaper solutions, it’s imperative that we keep an eye on the money pouring into these two programs. For instance, Munger suggested that “The change of direction also means that the UPF design team may be asked once again to redo at least a portion of their work.”

The last time the UPF design team was required to make changes was when it was discovered that the facility’s ceiling had been designed too low to accommodate all of the necessary uranium processing equipment. This flaw added $500 million to the price tag and six months of work to the timeline. There’s no telling how much the new redesign, intended to make the facility smaller, will affect the ultimate cost and schedule. One thing is certain: the managing and operating contractors, not taxpayers, should be required to pay for cost overruns and expensive design retrofits.