The Uranium Processing Facility is billed as the largest construction project in Tennessee history, with a price tag that’s officially estimated at somewhere between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion but — according to some analysts — could eventually top $10 billion.
More than half a billion dollars has already been spent on design and other preparations, and hundreds of companies have expressed interest in working on the new production center at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. At this point, however, it’s not clear whether the government will reveal all the companies receiving that money. In fact, it’s been a struggle to get the information.
The National Nuclear Security Administration and its chief contractor, B&W Y-12, which is managing the work on the UPF, have refused to identify some companies that recently got contracts to work on site preparation. And they’ve refused to say why.
Over the past month, the News Sentinel has made multiple requests for updated information on the UPF procurement activities. B&W Y-12, a partnership of Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel National, provided general numbers regarding contract awards over the past five years.
Spokeswoman Bridget Waller said B&W Y-12 awarded $265 million in UPF procurements, primarily for engineering and design services, to support the project between 2008 and 2012. So far in 2013, B&W Y-12 has awarded another $135 million, she said via email.
Much of that money reportedly went to four teams — each involving multiple companies working under so-called Basic Ordering Agreements (BOAs) — that are working on the UPF’s design. B&W previously released the names of the corporate entities on those teams, but the Y-12 contractor has not yet responded to a week-old request for how much money went to each of the teams.
As the Uranium Processing Facility heads toward the start of construction, perhaps late next year or 2015, project management has begun awarding subcontracts for site readiness and preparation.
B&W earlier this year released information on the first of those awards, which went to two local companies, Avisco and East Tennessee Mechanical Contractors. Avisco later received another $12 million contract — for road construction and relocation of water lines — from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was asked by the NNSA to help with contract management for the big project.
B&W balked, however, when asked for information on the most recent awards. Initially, the federal contractor responded that it had awarded subcontracts, totaling about $500,000, to three small businesses.
When pressed for information on who received the contracts, the B&W would identify only one of the three — Satellite Shelters, a Georgia company that received $180,000 to provide construction trailers for the project.
Waller said the other awards were $270,000 for “soil structure seismic interaction analysis” and $8,500 for “structural design review,” but she declined to name the companies involved.
“We cannot elaborate further on those contracts,” Waller said in an email response.
When asked for the company names a couple of weeks ago, the spokeswoman indicated it was typical to give “courtesy calls” to companies before releasing their names. However, when asked directly if B&W was allowing the award winners to decide if they wanted their names released publicly, Waller responded, “We’re not at liberty to discuss any further.”
Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the NNSA, a semi-independent part of the U.S. Department of Energy, also declined to comment. “That’s B&W’s call,” he said.
The Department of Energy has come under criticism in the past for refusing to release information regarding subcontractors, arguing it’s protected information. Under DOE’s unique system, however, the management and operating contractors at the sites take on a federal-like role, subcontracting much of the work with taxpayer dollars.
Also, in this situation, B&W has already released the names of multiple subcontractors on UPF, so it seems to be a pick-and-choose strategy for releasing contractor information.
Michael Halpern, a program manager with the Center for Science and Democracy at Union of Concerned Scientists, said restricting information is the wrong way to build trust on big federal projects like the Uranium Processing Facility.
“It’s really an unnecessary shield that makes it more difficult for the public to know how dollars are being spent,” Halpern said in a telephone interview. “The great thing about transparency is that people of all political stripes have a stake in supporting a more open government. Transparency is really necessary for accountability and trust.”
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project On Government Oversight, said releasing information promptly only makes sense on a project that’s already under fire.
“I think they would want to come clean and release as much information as possible,” Amey said, to prove that people doing the work are qualified and capable.
The UPF project team is redesigning the 388,000-square-foot building, raising the roof by 13 feet and making other adjustments because the original design wouldn’t accommodate all the necessary equipment to carry out Y-12’s uranium work for nuclear weapons. The design problem reportedly added about $500 million or more to the cost.
UPF has come under heavy criticism because the project is years behind schedule and the cost has grown from an original estimate of about $750 million to the current range of around $6 billion. Project managers say a firm price tag won’t be available until the design is at least 90 percent complete. That apparently will be about a year from now, based on the latest reports.
The National Nuclear Security Administration recently said the design of the project is more than 75 percent complete. About 700 people are working on the UPF project.
There are four main teams working under B&W Y-12:
— Merrick & Co. heads the Special Mechanical Design, including 3D mechanical equipment models and gloveboxes. Working with Merrick are URS Energy & Construction; Ares Corp.; and Innovative Design Inc.
— Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. leads the Utility Design. That team also includes URS; MS Technology Inc.; Concentric Management Group Inc.; American Defense Services; and LRS Federal.
— CH2M Hill Inc heads the Architectural/Structural Tasks & Drafting Support teams. Others companies working with them are MS Technology; Degenkolb Engineers; and Spectra Tech Inc.
— URS Energy & Construction heads the Process and Instrumentation Design Support and 3D Mechanical Design group. Other team members include Merrick; Jacobs; Navarro Research & Engineering Inc.; MS Technology; and Tetra Tech Inc.
In addition. Carl J. Costantino & Associates has a stand-alone contract with B&W Y-12 to do soil-structure interaction analysis for the UPF project. The work involves establishing the earthquake ground motion to use in designing the facility and equipment.
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