Alexander touts Red Team concept as way to bring runaway costs under control

alexandersummitThe Red Team has not even completed its report on alternatives to the super-expensive Uranium Processing Facility, but already the concept — using a broad team of experts to do a quick-but-intensive review of projects facing runaways costs — is being touted as a potential savior.

“I may see light at the end of the tunnel on this way for us to do a better job of these massive construction projects that are eating up billions of dollars,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water. He is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.

Alexander said he wants to call a special hearing on the Red Team approach sometimes after the team — headed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason — completes its report and provides recommendations on how to modernize the essential uranium work at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant within a budget of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion and within the time constraints needed.

Mason’s team is to deliver its report to the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-independent part of the U.S. Department of Energy, by April 15.

Alexander said he did not want to prejudge the Red Team’s report on an alternative approach to UPF, whose price tag has grown from an initial estimate of $650 million to multiple billions, but he said he liked the process.

He said some of the same review concepts have been used successfully by DOE’s Office of Science, including the Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL. Mason directed the SNS during its construction and initial operations, and the project was completed on time and within its $1.4 billion budget.

The Republican senator noted that UPF is scheduled to be built in Tennessee and that the state enjoy the jobs created and the federal spending. “But we don’t want the government wasting our money,” he stated. “We pay taxes, too.”

If a process has been used elsewhere successfully, Alexander suggested it might be potentially applicable to a number of other giant-sized projects besides UPF — such as the Mixed Oxide Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which reportedly could cost up to $30 billion over its lifetime. He said it might even be applied to some of the nuclear weapons life-extension projects that are expected to cost tens of billions of dollars.

“We need to get rid of these runaway costs,” Alexander said. If the Red Team review is successful, then the committee should spend more time looking at it, he said.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was the main witness at the hearing, and he agreed with Alexander that some of the Red Team concepts have been used on other projects and maybe could be applied to others.

Moniz said the Department of Energy is committed to getting out of Y-12’s antiquated uranium complex — known as 9212 — by 2025. The secretary also indicated that the revised effort at Y-12 will likely involve the use of modular facilities that can be brought online in phases to accomplish the key uranium missions and stay within the budget constraints.

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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.