Eschenberg: Scaling back some UPF activities until future direction clarified

photo (21)-004UPF Federal Project Director John Eschenberg, right, poses with Howard Hall, director of UT’s Institute for Nuclear Security, before Eschenberg’s talk Thursday night at the Baker Center.

UPF Federal Project John Eschenberg spoke Thursday evening at the University of Tennessee’s Baker Center as part of the ongoing lecture series by the Institute for Nuclear Security. It was pretty much’s Eschenberg’s standard talk on UPF, which combines a bit of Y-12 history, emphasizes the deteriorated state of the old, built-in-World-War-II facilities, and sets the case for economic development in the region while building a supply chain for good and services and helping revitalize the nation’s industrial base via work on this multibillion-dollar project.

Eschenberg also fielded questions, and after his talk I asked him about the Red Team review that’s looking at less-expensive alternatives to the UPF. I also asked him for some specifics about the reported scaling back of design activities until there’s a more certain sense of the project’s direction.

Eschenberg confirmed that some of the design work and preparatory activities may be slowed or put on hold in some cases while the evaluation of possible alternatives takes place. The intent is not to get too in areas that could be subject to change in coming months, he said.

The federal official said no design work has been suspended at this point, but there are “selective areas” of the design effort that will be evaluated and possibly halted in next few weeks.

“What we have done is suspended some overtime,” he said.

Some members of the team have been working as much as 15 percent overtime, so that will be curtailed until the picture gets a bit clearer.

“Within the next two to three weeks, we will make a value judgment on which elements of the design might it make sense to suspend,” Eschenberg said. That review was scheduled to begin today, he said.

But work will continue in areas of the UPF development that are expected to be included in the project no matter what direction it takes.

“I wouldn’t want to discourage the turning over of rocks (to look for alternatives), but some portions of this design we’re very, very confident in,” he said. “That won’t change at all.”

The focus for everyone is to get out of the aged 9212 uranium complex by 2025 and do the work within a cost of $6.5 billion, Eschenberg said.

The NNSA’s Red Team, headed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason, will be on site and taking at look at all aspects of Y-12’s uranium missions and how that can be done in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Mason’s team, which will probably total about 30, is expected to tap top expertise from the Department of Energy’s national laboratories.

Eschenberg said the plan is for the Red Team to show up March 10 and “be exposed to all things related to uranium processing and manufacturing at Y-12.” After time on site, they’ll go elsewhere to caucus for about a week and then return to Y-12, he said.

Significant changes could be forthcoming, depending on the Red Team’s finding and recommendations, and Eschenberg said it doesn’t sense to spend time on things that might not be integral to future plans.

“Until we wrestle with what the overall scope for the project is . . . I think it’s going to make sense to adjust what we had planned to do this year,” he said. “Which is we had planned to start the excavation (for the building’s foundation). We will not start the excavation this year. We will not do the mass fill, the backfill.”

The project tem will continue site readiness activities, including rerouting Bear Creek Road and other road work, and modernization of the plant’s old water lines and electric utilities.

Eschenberg would like to get a new electrical substation and he said he has had preliminary talks with TVA. “Because the one there is quite dated,” he said.

Asked if the National Nuclear Security Administration would foot the bill for the new substation, he said, “Not wholly.”

He added: “We’re initiating talks now. How the deal works out we’ll settle up on later. But these are the kind of activities we are working to initiative this year.

Also, there are a couple of long-lead procurement that will receive priority, including a concrete batch plant that he called “very critical” to the project.

As recently as December 2013, the NNSA was still talking about pushing forward with the UPF design to 90 percent completion before assessing whether alternatives might be necessary in order to constrain costs. However, the search for alternatives got new priority, perhaps because of a number of reports that show the UPF could cost significantly more than the previously estimated cost range ($4.2 billion to $6.5 billion).

Eschenberg said the design completion percentage on UPF was in the “high 70s” when the decision was made to start looking for alternatives to the plan.

Currently, there is no plan to continue pushing the existing design effort to 90 percent, the UPF project chief said.

“That’s imprudent at this time,” he said. “You don’t want to forejudge the outcome of Dr. Mason’s team. But I think we need to think about what are the likely outcomes of this . . and focus our resources on that. And that’s my job to make sure we’re spending our resources smartly and we’re making design deliverables that we can use irrespective of what some final configuration might look like. That’s our challenge.

“So, in two to three weeks, we’ll be at one interval. Dr. Mason’s team will be at another. The Department’s going to need some time to assess what are really our options. And then where do we go from there.”

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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.