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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

A Radioactive Poster Child for Government Waste

Here’s a lesson on how the federal government and its contractors can turn a relatively modest project into a massive boondoggle.

Back in 2005, officials at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) persuaded Congress to approve a new uranium processing facility. They pitched it as a $600 million replacement for several aging buildings at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The government’s plans for the construction of a new uranium processing facility are so ridiculous that it could be a poster child for wasteful and unnecessary spending.

Today, the cost of the project has ballooned. One estimate puts the price of the facility at $11.6 billion. The cost overruns, construction delays, and a major design flaw have also pushed back the projected opening from 2018 to 2038—the distant date the government says the facility will be fully operational.

Much of the blame falls on the NNSA’s flawed initial estimates and poor contractor management.

Since 1990, the Government Accountability Office has fretted over the Department of Energy’s shortcomings in overseeing and managing its projects. What makes matters particularly troubling in this case, however, is that the uranium processing facility may serve no purpose at all.

If built, it would largely support operations to extend the life of nuclear warheads. These “life extension” programs involve dismantling warheads, inspecting the uranium parts, and either recertifying that each component still meets military requirements or remanufacturing the highly enriched uranium components if they have significantly deteriorated.

This process begins at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, but the highly enriched uranium components are then shipped across the country to Y-12 for recertification and, if necessary, remanufacturing.

However, the recertification process could just be done at Pantex, without the risks associated with shipping bomb-grade material across the country. The design delays also mean that by the time the facility is completed it may no longer be needed as part of the warhead life extension programs. The government plans to have that work completed before then.

Besides, nuclear experts have questioned whether the processing facility will be able to contribute to the agency’s refurbishing of nuclear warheads.

There are also existing facilities at Y-12 that could do the work planned for the new uranium processing facility. The government has spent billions of dollars on upgrades and refurbishments for its aging uranium operations buildings, which would suggest that they aren’t as dilapidated as the NNSA would have the public and Congress believe.

The cost of modifying and upgrading the existing facilities at Y-12 should be thoroughly explored by an independent group of experts before implementing the project. Unless it’s clear that the $11 billion uranium processing facility is truly necessary, let’s not squander our tax dollars on it.