After a billion dollars and almost a decade of designing and redesigning, the Department of Energy has conducted a review of alternatives to the costly Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) construction project at the Y-12 nuclear complex.
In January 2014, the Energy Department formed a “Red Team” led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason to review the UPF project and suggest alternatives. This Red Team review may be the last nail in the coffin for this $19 billion boondoggle. The costs for the facility, a new building originally designed to replace the uranium processing capabilities of several facilities at Y-12, have skyrocketed since the project was first sold to Congress in 2005.
The Red Team identified several steps that must be taken in order to complete the project within budget constraints as soon as possible. For instance, the report expressed the need for a strong and continuous leadership, and “significant and sustained oversight.” And the Red Team recommended immediately scrapping the current “big box,” above ground UPF design and instead focusing on augmenting and utilizing existing Y-12 facilities as well as constructing smaller, “new build” facilities.
The Project On Government Oversight was thrilled to see this plan come from the Department itself. Just last year, POGO made a remarkably similar recommendation in our report highlighting the troubling cost overruns and delays plaguing this project, Uranium Processing Facility: When You’re in a Hole, Just Stop Digging. However, unlike POGO’s recommendations, which emphasized the use of existing National Nuclear Security Administration facilities at Y-12 and elsewhere, the Red Team’s report seemed to be parochially focused on solutions involving facilities only at Y-12.For example, the team recommended the Department of Energy create a mission-specific strategic plan to incorporate each facet of the Y-12 complex, without considering other Energy Department assets. The review proposed multiple management solutions like this, but failed to address several potential time- and money-saving strategies in its final report.
For instance, the Red Team stated that making full use of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), a recently completed storage building for weapons grade uranium, should be done with the utmost urgency. In POGO’s report we made this same recommendation after NNSA sources told us that the HEUMF is only 57 percent full. But we went one step further, recommending that the Energy Department downblend the excess enriched uranium currently stored at the HEUMF to create even more space. Downblending is a process of diluting highly enriched uranium and creating low enriched uranium for use in commercial nuclear reactors. Not only is this much safer and more secure than highly enriched uranium, as the uranium is no longer weapons-usable, but selling the low enriched uranium could generate billions of dollars for the U.S. treasury. The Red Team did not include a mention of downblending in its report.
The report also failed to consider the use of the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, another suggestion from POGO’s UPF report. The Pantex Plant has both the space and capability to take over some of the work currently performed at Y-12, specifically the re-certification of uranium bomb components. Shifting this mission to Pantex would reduce the need to transport nuclear weapons components across the country and would fit well with the Pantex mission. The plant is already doing similar work on plutonium pit re-certification.
The review was an important first step in moving away from the costly, and unnecessary “big box” UPF design. It is our hope that the Energy Department will carefully consider the many recommendations by the Red Team, POGO, and others before wasting any more taxpayer dollars on this facility.