Uranium Processing Facility: When You're in a Hole, Just Stop Digging
Why This Matters
The Uranium Processing Facility serves as yet another example of wasteful National Nuclear Security Administration spending practices. Far too often this agency insists on building the newest and biggest facilities, but a lack of necessity and poor management often derails these multi-billion dollar construction projects. The UPF is no different. Serious questions have been raised about the need for UPF, particularly since delays have pushed the completion date at least 10 years into the future. It is unclear what the nuclear stockpile will look like at that point given budget constraints and U.S. commitments to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons over the next five years. Furthermore, alternatives exist for parts if not all of UPF's mission. To prevent yet another example of construction projects that are begun, funded with millions—or even billions—of taxpayer dollars, then abandoned, the NNSA must thoroughly explore these options.
The Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is proceeding with plans to construct the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), currently estimated to cost over $11 billion, at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The UPF is intended to support several nuclear projects such as providing uranium feedstock for use by the Naval Reactors Program, the disassembly of nuclear bomb secondaries, and, when necessary, the assembly of new secondaries from refurbished and new components. However, costs have skyrocketed from the original 2005 estimate of $600 million to over $11 billion today, the operational date has fallen at least 20 years behind schedule, and questions about the facility’s mission abound. Meanwhile alternatives to this costly option wait to be explored in the darkened wings.
- There is significant evidence to suggest that some aspects of the UPF mission can be carried out at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and with a few modifications and refurbishments, at existing facilities at Y-12.
- It is not at all clear what capacity will be required for the recertification of nuclear bomb secondaries, one of UPF’s most important missions, nor whether it will be necessary to remanufacture any secondaries. DOE officials are withholding this information with a claim of top secret classification and there have been no independent studies to determine the lifetime of secondaries.
- In 2005, the UPF was expected to be functioning in 2018, however, now the facility isn’t expected to be fully operational until 2038. Poor project management and a design flaw contributed to the serious cost overruns the NNSA is now facing on this project. Investigations into the design flaw found that: “Early estimates, which showed the need for a higher cost range, were apparently disregarded to gain approval to proceed with the project.”
- The former chairman of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force has expressed concerns that by the time the facility is fully operational in 2038 its mission will be obsolete. The former chairman does not forsee this multi-billion dollar facility “contributing to the mission of the NNSA.”
- The NNSA continues to pursue an above-ground design that is not only significantly more difficult to secure but also more costly and will ultimately take longer to construct.
- The Government Accountability Office raised concerns in late 2010 that several new technological advancements planned for the UPF mission will not reach a developmental stage where it can be assured that they will perform correctly before the facility is to be operational.