The so-called Red Team evaluating alternatives to the Uranium Processing Facility arrived Monday for its first visit to the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and apparently will spend most of this week getting an up-close look at the plant’s uranium operations – some of which are still conducted in World War II-era facilities.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason is heading the team, which is supposed to come up with safe, secure and – perhaps most importantly – affordable options to the ultra-expensive Uranium Processing Facility.
According to some reports, the projected cost of the UPF had significantly outgrown the government’s previously estimated range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion and was likely to exceed $10 billion if it continued on the same design path. One estimate attributed to a Defense Department evaluation team suggested the UPF, as envisioned, could cost as much as $19 billion.
Bruce Held, acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, asked Mason in mid-January to head the team and come up with recommendations that would allow Y-12 to vacate the plant’s aged 9212 complex – where bomb-grade uranium is chemically processed – by the year 2025. Held also asked Mason to come up with alternatives that could be accomplished within the previous cost range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion.
The Red Team is supposed to reports its findings to Held by April 15.
In an interview last week, Mason said the team has about 25 members that were selected from some of the nation’s most prestigious laboratories.
Mason didn’t identify the individuals on the team, but he said they included experts from the nuclear weapons laboratories – Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia – as well as national labs in the Department of Energy’s science and energy complex, such as Argonne, Oak Ridge, Idaho, Savannah River and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
“It’s really a whole-of-the-complex effort,” he said.
Mason earlier said the effort, while of limited duration, will be “pretty intense.”
The Uranium Processing Facility has been under development for more than a decade but has yet to begin construction. The schedule suffered a setback a couple of years ago when it was determined that the original design – which was nearing completion – did not allow sufficient space for all of the needed equipment. The design mess-up reportedly added more than half a billion dollars to the cost.
Mason has indicated the Red Team will not be analyzing the UPF per se, saying the project has already been reviewed many times. Instead, the team will be studying Y-12’s uranium missions in detail and try to take a fresh look at how they could be accomplished in a safe and secure manner.
The team is expected to challenge some of the original assumptions for the Uranium Processing Facility. The UPF was designed to consolidate all of Y-12’s uranium production missions – such as chemical processing, machining and rolling, and fabrication and assembly of nuclear warhead parts.
When asked if he expected the independent Red Team to encounter any resentment or resistance from the UPF team at Y-12, Mason said he didn’t.
“Certainly, everyone I’ve spoken with so far at Y-12, both on the federal side and also on the contractor side of the question has been very supportive.”
He added: “The important thing to remember about all of this is we’re not being directed to kind of switch off modernization at Y-12. Everyone I’ve spoken to, all the way up to Bruce Held, is very clear that we need a strategy that gets us out of some of these facilities and into facilities that do meet the modern expectation in terms of safety and security.”
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, which for years has opposed plans for the UPF, is encouraging its members to write to Mason and ask the Red Team to challenge the priority for some of the weapons-production capabilities at Y-12 and perhaps look at options that would cost far less than $6.5 billion.
In a paper released Monday, the alliance expressed skepticism about whether the Red Team will make a difference.
“There is a strong possibility that the fix is already in,” the paper stated.
OREPA noted that regular meetings are being held between U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, ranking Republican on the Senate’s Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee (a key player in funding for UPF); U.S. Sen. Barbara Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee; and NNSA and contractor officials responsible for the UPF. The activist group said they may have already painted a “fundable” picture of UPF and now will go about carrying out that plan.
“There are billions of dollars riding on the outcome,” the activist group stated. “It seems likely that the Red Team composed of all team players, after all, will at least include in its gallery of possibilities the painting that is being composed on the Senate E&W easel.”
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