The National Nuclear Security Administration this evening confirmed that it will begin to develop “alternative mission delivery scenarios” for getting out of the aged 9212 complex at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge by 2025 and replacing the enriched uranium capabilities within the “original cost range.”
This appears to be the first step in scaling down the size and scope of the Uranium Processing Facility and likely focusing first and foremost on a new facility that can do the uranium work done in 9212, parts of which date back to the World War II Manhattan Project.
The NNSA response came as a follow-on to language contained in the 2014 Omnibus spending bill and report explaining a $16 million cut in funding — to a reported $309 million — for the Uranium Processing Facility, whose price tag has been the subject of growing scrutiny and concern. Just as important as the growing cost was a concern that the project wasn’t moving fast enough to get out of 9212 by 2025.
The NNSA statement on the “original cost range” apparently is referencing the $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion cost range for UPF that’s been in effect for the past couple of years, although there were earlier (and lower) cost ranges for the multibillion-dollar project to replace Y-12’s production capabilities. There have been various analyses over the past year that have suggested the UPF could end up costing $10 billion or more.
Here is the NNSA’s statement released this evening:
“NNSA is committed to its mission of nuclear safety and security while working to improve operations, save taxpayer dollars, and plan for the future. Consistent with NNSA’s commitment to fully mature designs before establishing project baselines, the UPF Project’s design, engineering, and technology development efforts are continuing to a point such that NNSA can develop a credible cost and schedule estimate.
“Concurrently and in accordance with our project governance protocols, NNSA will begin to develop alternative mission delivery scenarios to ensure that we replace the Building 9212 enriched uranium capability –- which represents our highest mission risk — within our original cost range and in line with the 2025 commitment that Acting Administrator Bruce Held testified to before the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.”
It appears that now, even more than before, the priority will be on establishing a replacement facility for the 9212 complex, instead of buidling a mega-sized UPF that would ultimately include the uranium machining and wearhead assembly/disassembly work that was to originally have been part of the facilility. The replacement facility for 9212, which could still be called UPF, will apparently be significantly smaller. The change of direction also means that the UPF design team may be asked once again to redo at least a portion of their work.
More than year ago, the design work had to be redone because the original design for UPF wasn’t big enough to accommodate all of the needed equipment. Now, however, it appears that the challenge could be scaling back the design to a reasonable size to do the uranium processing work now done at 9212.
There have been suggestions out there for a while that the NNSA might look to more of a modular approach in modernizing the production capabilities at the Oak Ridge plant, and that seems to be the direction things are headed.
If the decision is made to replace Building 9215 (where uranium machining takes place) and Beta-2E (where warhead components are assembled and taken apart and where quality inspections take place), those facilities could be built separately.
Whether to proceed along those lines and — under what timetable — will apparently be a part of upcoming reviews on the entire UPF strategy.
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