POGO: It would be ‘ludicrous’ to ignore cost-saving alternatives to UPF; cites work that could be done at Pantex

A government watchdog group wants to scrap plans for a multibillion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, arguing there are alternatives that cost far less and make more sense.

upflookThe Project On Government Oversight (POGO), based in Washington, D.C., said UPF is an extremely expensive option for carrying out Y-12’s future work on nuclear weapons, some of which may not even be necessary.

In a report released Wednesday, POGO said some of the long-standing arguments for building a new production facility at Y-12 are flawed. The group suggested that the deteriorated condition of the 9212 complex, a World War II-era uranium processing operation, may have been overstated and could carry on, if needed. The upgrades would be costly, but nothing compared to the potential $10 billion price tag of UPF, the report said.

The group suggested that some work currently done at Y-12 facilities and planned for UPF, such as recertification of nuclear warhead parts known as “secondaries” or “canned subassemblies,” could be done just as well at Pantex — Y-12’s sister plant in Texas.

The nation’s aging nuclear weapons are periodically evaluated to see if the warhead parts have become deteriorated. There are life-extension projects to ensure their viability is maintained.

If the certification mission were moved to Texas, POGO said, it would save money and bolster security by eliminating some of the transportation of nuclear weapons components between Oak Ridge and Amarillo.

“This is one of the biggest benefits of transferring this program to Pantex,” the report stated. “The CSAs (canned subassemblies) do not need to be shipped across the country to Y-12 and back again to Pantex (where final assembly of warheads takes place), which is not only expensive but also leaves the sensitive nuclear material far more vulnerable to theft or attack.”

POGO said it had been told by sources at Pantex that the Texas plant would welcome the role of recertifying the uranium secondaries — the second stage of nuclear weapons — and has area available in which to do the sensitive work.

The group in recent years has questioned whether Y-12 is actually manufacturing new uranium parts for the warheads that are revamped and then returned to deployment. POGO said it had been told by trusted Department of Energy sources that several hundred nuclear warheads have gone through the life-extension process and have not required newly manufactured secondaries.

“Currently the DOE and the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) claim they need the capacity to remanufacture 160-200 secondaries a year (at Y-12),” the report stated. “But it seems ludicrous to begin to build a facility without a concrete estimate of how many secondaries will require refurbishment or replacement.

“Before billions of dollars are spent on yet another unneeded facility, POGO recommends Congress and DOE insist on an independent study on secondary lifetimes to verify the need for increased production capabilities,” the report said.

Instead of building a new and expensive facility, POGO also said it may be possible to include some uranium processing operations inside Y-12’s existing uranium storage facility. The Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility was built several years ago at a cost of $549 million.

According to POGO, citing sources within the NNSA, the storage function only takes up about 57 percent of the building.

“This free space could be adjusted and augmented for a scaled down, vastly more realistic, UPF mission that reflects the current reality of our nuclear requirements, at a fraction of the cost,” the POGO report said.

The fact that the government has already invested more than half a billion dollars in UPF should not be a deterrent to killing the project, POGO said, citing examples of other projects — such as the Clinch River Breeder Reactor — that grew to be unaffordable and were removed from funding during construction.

“Not to mention the numerous safety and security concerns that are raised by the current UPF plan and design,” the POGO report said. “Before asking taxpayers to fund yet another overly ambitious nuclear facility, it is critical that NNSA publicly reveal exactly what capacity will be required and on what timeline. Before billions of dollars are spent on design changes, construction delays, and expensive technologies, NNSA must provide a more full picture of the alternative options available.”

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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.