Red Team reaches ‘strong consensus’ on alternative strategy for UPF

2013-P032304The Red Team has reached a “strong consensus” on a possible alternative strategy for the Uranium Processing Facility and will devote the next two weeks to polishing their work, do some additional fact-checking, make sure everyone is comfortable with the findings, and put together a report for delivery to NNSA Acting Administrator Bruce Held.

That was the message Monday from Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason, who was selected by Held to scrutinize the uranium operations at Y-12 and come up with possible options to the UPF concept. The team’s charge was to come up with a way to get out of the Building 9212 — Y-12’s World War II-era center for processing highly enriched uranium — by 2025 and do it at a cost of no more than $6.5 billion.

Last week was the second week that the Red Team members — totaling about 25 experts in various fields — spent on site at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge. They did specific interviews to supplement information from a previous visit and their document studies, took a particularly close look at some of the technologies involved, and during the last part of the week sifted through their findings and came to a consensus on what the parameters of an alternative strategy would look like, Mason said.

“Now whether or not it’s better, that will be the judgment of the NNSA,” he said in an interview Monday. “Obviously, the UPF concept had a lot of attractive options in terms of the maximum consolidation (of uranium operations), minimum footprint, operational flexibility from getting everything in one facility. And, in some of those dimensions, almost anything else is going to be less optimum. It’s really a question of balancing the risk and the resources and the time. At the end, that’s what we really put the focus on . . . to move with a certain set of urgency.”

Getting out of 9212 by 2025 isn’t as easy as it might sound, according to Mason. “2025 looks awfully close when you look at all the things that need to be done,” he said. “That’s what was driving our thinking.  What is the pathway that you can execute reasonably quickly in order to reduce the risk (of the existing operations failing and having to be shut down)? Part of the challenge with the UPF as it’s currently configured is it’s large and expensive. Because of that, it takes a long time. You have to keep in the (existing facilities) for longer than you like.”

The findings of the Red Team won’t be a finished product, with everything in place. Mason said a lot of additional analysis will still need to be done.

However, there will only be one strategy — with multiple components — proposed by the Red Team.

“To some extent, we would be doing NNSA and Bruce Held a disservice if we just threw out without consideration a whole series of ideas for different studies,” Mason said. “You could spend an infinite amount of time and not move forward.”

He said he was pleased that people with different backgrounds and expertise from different parts of the DOE complex could come together on a pretty good consensus.

“There’s not going to be a minority report,” he said.

There were areas covered by the review that some team members had a greater interest in than others, but everyone seemed to have a strong sense that this was an important task, he said.

“I think we learned a lot,” Mason said in an interview. “I have to say we probably tested the patience of the Y-12 team in terms of all our requests for additional information — ‘We want this. We want that. And we want it in this form.’ They put up with us and gave us the answers we needed.”

Mason said the Red Team, because of its size and varied expertise, broke into groups — for such things as management issues, technology, regulatory drivers — and he emphasized that everyone contributed and will play a role in the final report.

“There’s not a single author,” he said. “Everyone has a piece of it.”

Asked about the Red Team’s work hours while on-site, Mason said the good thing about bringing people from around the country is that once they got there there was nothing else to do. Once inside parts of Y-12, no cell phones were allowed, and that’s a great way to focus attention, he said.

Because the final report isn’t yet finished, Mason said it would be inappropriate to discuss the proposed strategy or its components. But he did hint at some of the directions.

Mason said the focus was primarily on 9212 and getting out of that facility and making use of the other infrastructure that exists (in the production operations), such as Beta-2E and Building 9215. In the longer term, those two facilities will also reach a point where they’re no longer serviceable, he said.

“Beta-2E is in pretty good shape,” he said. “With some prudent investments to continue to improve the facility, there’s no reason it can’t have a reasonably long life.”

Mason noted that Building 9215 is roughly of the same age as 9212, but it’s not in as bad shape because of the type of operations conducted there. “Just less nasty in terms of the impact (operations have had) on their facility,” he said.

Some of the actions that may be recommended by the Red Team probably would have been done anyway, he said, noting the NNSA had already taken steps to break the UPF project into phases — with getting out of 9212 being the first phase and others being deferred.

Asked if it the work at Beta-2E (where assembly/disassembly and quality evaluation take place) and Building 9212 (uranium machining) would eventually be incorporated into the same facility, Mason noted: “By definition, when we’re talking about an alternative, it’s something other than the plan of record.”

The UPF concept, of course, did plan for all the uranium operations to be consolidated.

Asked how long the report would be, Mason said the team originally targeted it to be 10 to 12 pages. But he acknowledged the alternatives analysis of enriched uranium missions would be longer than that, particularly with some of the backup detail and appendices to provide background information on the participants.

Photo caption: NNSA Acting Administrator Bruce Held, left, and ORNL Director Thom Mason (ORNL photo/2013)

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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.