NNSA defends Uranium Processing Facility

Uranium Processing Facility

Uranium Processing Facility (B&W Y-12)

I asked a National Nuclear Security Adminstation spokesman if the NNSA wanted to respond to the Project On Government Oversight report that criticized the “skyrocketing” costs and major delays on the Uranium Processing Facility and basically called for the government to scrap the  multibillion-dollar project and pursue other alternatives.

“Activists are an important part of discourse in a healthy democracy, and we respect what groups have to say,” NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said by email. “However, UPF is
critically important to the ability of Y-12 and NNSA to complete our missions.”

McConaha provided a series of facts and statements that defend the need for UPF and address some of the issues raised by POGO, although the spokesman said the NNSA report was not put together specifically to rebut the POGO report.

Here is the NNSA response:

UPF KEY FACTS

UPF IS VITAL TO NATIONAL SECURITY: The Y-12 National Security Complex is
responsible for providing the unique manufacturing capability necessary to
ensure that the United States maintains a safe and effective nuclear
deterrent.  UPF is necessary to ensure the continued viability of this
mission and to provide fuel for the U.S. Navy’s submarines and aircraft
carriers. As we continue to dismantle nuclear weapons no longer needed, the new
UPF will also serve an integral role in NNSA’s commitment to dismantle and
process nuclear material from these weapons for use today in peacetime
missions, such as fueling our next generation commercial power reactors or in
research reactors for medical isotope production to aide in the treatment and
fight against cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

UPF IS URGENTLY NEEDED: For nearly 70 years, the core of the nation’s uranium
operations has been in the original WWII-era building known as 9212 at the Y-12
National Security Complex. This facility cannot and will not ever be a modern
nuclear facility. The need and urgency for a new uranium processing facility
for our nation is obvious to anyone working or visiting the existing WWII
facility, and has been validated and clearly defined in the 2010 Nuclear
Posture Review, echoed in the 2012 Department of Defense Strategic Guidance and
confirmed by President Barack Obama, members of Congress, the Defense Nuclear
Facilities Safety Board, Perry Commission, Army Corps of Engineers and many
other independent groups.

Building 9212’s aging infrastructure and equipment are increasingly fragile to
maintain. Just obtaining replacement parts for electrical, ventilation,
fire-protection and other systems is a challenge. Because of such tenuous
utility and safety systems, routine operation of the facility relies more and
more on alternative controls that are costly and time consuming.

SAFETY AND SECURITY DRAMATICALLY IMPROVE WITH UPF: UPF will be significantly
safer than 9212—both for the public and for Y-12 workers. Unlike 9212, UPF will
be built to modern nuclear safety standards, including earthquake resistance,
ventilation systems that contain and filter all air released from UPF and modern,
nuclear-qualified fire protection systems. UPF will also improve the site’s
security posture and significantly reduce the size of the high-security
protected area.

THE UPF FACTS

– The cost range for UPF remains $4.2–6.5 billion.

– The size of UPF is capabilities-based, not capacity based. In February 2011, in
the Final Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for the Y-12 National
Security Complex, NNSA announced that it would downsize its uranium processing
capacity. As such, UPF is designed for that reduced capacity while still
maintaining the capabilities to conduct surveillance, produce and dismantle
secondaries, fuel the nuclear navy and reprocess material from weapons for use
in peacetime missions, such as fueling our next generation commercial power
reactors or in research reactors for medical isotope production to aide in the
treatment and fight against cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

– This same EIS considered a “No Net Production/Capability-Sized UPF” alternative
with less capacity. That alternative would require building “essentially the
same UPF” to meet these important uranium missions. Whether NNSA maintains a
large stockpile or no stockpile, UPF is necessary.

– The need to build UPF is urgent, but actual construction of the facility will
not begin until design is complete. Current field activities are focused on
preparing the site for construction.

– Every new technology going into UPF is being tested and proven. UPF is not
“irreversibly committed to rely on unproven technologies.” UPF includes several
new technologies to improve the safety and efficiency of our nation’s uranium
operations. In the three years since the General Accounting Office’s review of
technologies, UPF and NNSA have acted on their recommendations. Technologies
are on track to achieve the required technology maturity before construction
begins.

– It’s imperative that these technologies stand the test now, while the project
is still in the design phase, and the production microwave is a good example.
The microwave was put into production late last year and encountered problems
that delayed start-up. Those issues have now been corrected, and the unit is
being integrated into routine usage at Y-12. A similar microwave will be used
in UPF and it is better to work through such issues now, well before UPF start
up.

– UPF will also be significantly safer than 9212—both for the public and for Y-12
workers. Unlike 9212, UPF will be built to modern nuclear safety standards,
including earthquake resistance, ventilation systems that contain and filter
all air released from UPF and modern, nuclear-qualified fire protection
systems.

– The Defense Nuclear Facilities Board provides important oversight of NNSA
nuclear facility projects, and their opinions are valued. The exchange with
them on criticality controls did not have to do with whether or not UPF will be
safer than the current facility but rather how much safer UPF should be. UPF
has addressed the DNFSB concerns, including their criticality safety concerns,
and received approval of the preliminary safety design report.

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This entry was posted in DNFSB, NNSA, nuclear, UPF, Y-12 on by .

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.