UPF to be redesigned because equipment won’t fit; $500M already spent on Y-12 project

KNS photos/Michael Patrick
John Eschenberg, federal project director for the Uranium Processing Facility, answers questions at today’s hearing of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. That’s Dr. Don Cook, deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, in the foreground, and Teresa Robbins, deputy federal project director, to Eschenberg’s right. In photograph below, DNFSB Board Member John Mansfield asks a question while Peter Winokur, the board chairman, left, listens.
dnfsb.jpgThe Uranium Processing Facility, already tabbed as the biggest construction project in Tennessee history, is apparently going to get even bigger.
At a federal safety board hearing today in Knoxville, officials at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant acknowledged that the UPF will have to be redesigned because all the equipment needed to process bomb-grade uranium and conduct other related activities won’t fit into the 340,000-square-foot building as previously envisioned.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board convened today’s field hearing at the Knoxville Convention Center to hear testimony from project officials about the board’s ongoing safety concerns and to gather public comment. Board members grilled the project team about delays in incorporating safety into the UPF’s design and lingering issues about the government’s strategy for building and operating the new uranium facility in Oak Ridge.
The biggest news, however, was that UPF planners hadn’t figured out a way to fit all of the project’s nuclear operations into the design package, despite years of work and about half a billion dollars already spent.

Steven Stokes, a staff member of the safety board, said the issue further complicates the safety picture for the Uranium Processing Facility, which is supposed to replace a series of old and outmoded nuclear facilities — some of which date back to World War II.
“This redesign of UPF as it neared final design is a serious undertaking with the potential for significant impacts on public and worker safety,” Stokes said at today’s hearing.
Among other things, the new plans will remove a glovebox that was originally included as a way to help workers involved in the uranium processing activities, Stokes said.
Because the space issue was discovered so late in the design process it will have a greater impact on the project, and that could affect cost, schedule and safety, he said.
Dr. Peter Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said the board is concerned UPF will continue to experience problems because safety got short shrift early on.
The cost range for the Uranium Processing Facility had been officially estimated at $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion, and it was not immediately clear how the redesign will change the project’s cost.
John Eschenberg, the federal project director for UPF, told the board that in order to create more space for the facility’s production activities that the roof of the building will have to be raised about 13 feet. After the meeting, he acknowledged that would add to the cost of the project.
In addition, the concrete foundation slab will have to be about a foot thicker, and the walls will have to be thickened from 18 inches to 30 inches, he said.
Those are the major structural impacts of the space/fit problem, Eschenberg said.
The federal project director said the Department of Energy had not yet determine the root causes for why the building design didn’t meet the UPF needs. “The project prematurely established a hard footprint,” he said, perhaps an outgrowth of having the early design team doing work at three different locations
The scope of the Uranium Processing Facility had not changed since its inception, Eschenberg said, so that’s not to blame for the space shortage.
Eschenberg said more information about the impacts of the redesign and other details would be available in about three weeks, after an engineering evaluation is completed.
In response to questions during an interview a few months ago, the federal project director acknowledged that designers were dealing with space issues but he suggested it wasn’t that unusual and would be resolved during the final design stages.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.