I’m not sure what the impact of the latest negative event at Y-12 is going to be, but I’m sure there’re a lot of people worrying about it.
For the general public, the mishandling of a small amount of uranium oxide probably doesn’t have the cringe factor of some other high-profile problems of recent vintage at Y-12, be it the predawn intrusion by peace activists cutting through security fences or highly skilled contract teams screwing up the design of a multibillion-dollar facility (UPF). But in the nuclear weapons world, keeping close track of special nuclear materials is a big deal — even if there is no apparent harm or threat to humanity. Whether it comes under the category of material-storage protocols and procedures or conduct of operations, there is a lot of emphasis placed on careful handling — very careful handling — of enriched uranium and making sure it’s not only accounted for, but kept in safest configuration possible. While there are multiple layers of protection in place for such materials, violations even at the outermost fringes of protection are taken seriously.
The ramifications of the latest incident at Y-12 could be broad or specific. The $22 billion management contract at Y-12, in combination with the one at Pantex, is still under contest, and folks are wondering if the latest mishap at Y-12 will somehow affect the outcome of the contract award.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has not shown its hand, in a poker way, on the Y-12/Pantex contract award, other than to reaffirm its initial selection of Bechtel-led Consolidated Nuclear Security as the team to replace the existing management teams at the weapon sites in Tennessee and Texas.
A three-day protest hearing was held earlier this week in Washington, in which the Government Accountability Office apparently got additional information on the latest protest from one of the losing bidders — B&W-led Nuclear Production Partners — and the responses from the NNSA.
Ultimately, however, it will be up to the NNSA to decide how to move forward in managing the plants in the nuclear weapons complex (aka, the nuclear security enterprise), and there has been a whole heck of a lot of speculation about the possibilities. Some folks have suggested there’s growing momentum for just abandoning the entire let’s-combine-plants-and-save-money concept and go back to the way things were. But, the counter argument is that would mean NNSA has admitted defeat and go back on years of planning and studies that showed the government could save money — big money, billions of dollars — by combining management of related operations.
Y-12/Pantex was just the start, perhaps.
But trust in contractors is a key ingredient in this whole mix, and it’s just not clear if the National Nuclear Security Administration is clear on how to proceed. Or maybe the latest incident at Y-12 is actually the straw that broke the camel’s back and made it even more clear that, yes, it’s time to change contractors.
Unless, of course, the procurement mess-ups in the government effort to combine the Y-12 and Pantex contracts were such that even with a bad existing situation it’s still better than trying to move forward on a path blocked by unending challenges.
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