DOE approves construction of Uranium Processing Facility

The Department of Energy has officially given the go-ahead to construct the last three buildings that will make up Y-12 National Security Complex’s long-awaited Uranium Processing Facility.

The $6.5 billion project will be the largest construction project the state has ever seen and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) expects the project to create more than 2,000 jobs during peak construction.

“This milestone is another important step toward delivering UPF and strengthening our nation’s nuclear security,” said Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, Department of Energy undersecretary for nuclear security and NNSA administrator. “I’m proud of the UPF team for keeping an acquisition project of this size and scope on budget and on schedule.”

The UPF project is being built through a series of seven sub-projects. Two have already been completed under budget and two are currently under construction.

The salvage and accountability building, a process support facility and the UPF’s 240,000 square-foot main process building were the last of seven sub-projects to receive DOE approval.

Maintaining uranium

The main process building will house the facility’s primary stockpile maintenance function: recycling uranium from old nuclear warheads to maintain the current arsenal.

Only certain isotopes can undergo fission, which releases excess neutrons that trigger a chain reaction when nearby atoms absorb them.

Modern weapons use both fission and fusion – which releases energy when nuclei bond together – to release explosive energy.

Uranium forms the core in nuclear many weapons which triggers the explosion when compressed or fired into another uranium mass. But, uranium decays as it ages, and may not be able to detonate when fired if it isn’t maintained.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said the Uranium Processing Facility will use a “safer, cleaner and more efficient” process to modernize uranium warheads.

Build to budget

The facility is a big chunk of a trillion dollar, Obama-era plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear stockpile, and President Donald Trump is poised to carry it forward.

Trump signed a $1.3 trillion government spending bill that allocated $663 million for the facility’s construction. The spending bill also includes record levels for the NNSA’s weapons programs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the $663 million allocated this year will help keep the construction on schedule for 2025 completion and under its $6.5 billion budget cap.

NNSA said it will use a “build to budget” approach to ensure the project stays on track.

But nuclear watchdog groups are less confident. Ralph Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance said his group and Nuclear Watch New Mexico have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for asks NNSA to provide the “definitive scope, schedule and cost baselines” for the facility.

“This project is already a classic boondoggle, and they are just getting started,” Hutchison said, referring to the plant’s rocky course so far.

From $650 million to $6.5 billion

Originally proposed in 2006 at a cost of $650 million, the project’s budget spun quickly out of control as more equipment and safety features were added on design plans than could actually fit in the facility.

After a 2014 red team review, Congress capped the facility’s budget at $6.5 billion and mandated that site designs reach 90 percent completion before construction begins.

The bulk of the savings came by agreeing to continue using several older uranium processing buildings at Y-12 instead of moving all of their functions to the new facility.

The designs reached the 90 percent completion milestone last September, months after the Oak Ridge and New Mexico organizations filed a lawsuit over the seismic risks using the aging buildings pose.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Brittany Crocker

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Published April 6, 2018