In an effort to keep costs under control, meet national security needs in the years ahead and get out of old facilities before unsafe conditions force their shutdown, the so-called Red Team has proposed wholesale and urgent changes in the government’s plans for building a new Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.
The 25-member Red Team, which was headed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason, completed its work in mid-April, and the National Nuclear Security Administration released the report Thursday. The major goals of the team were to come up with a new strategy that would allow Y-12 to vacate its World War II-era uranium-processing complex – known as 9212 – by 2025 and to keep the overall cost of revamping the uranium operations within a cost cap of $6.5 billion.
Instead of building a single, “big box” facility to consolidate all of Y-12’s work with bomb-grade uranium, the Red Team proposed a number of actions – such as shifting some of the work currently done at 9212 into other facilities. That would include moving some operations into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, the relatively new storage facility that was constructed several years ago at a cost of $549 million and houses the nation’s stockpile of weapons-usable uranium. Other processing activities now done at 9212 would be shifted to two other nearby facilities – Beta-2E, where currently warhead parts are assembled and evaluated for quality, and 9215, home to some of Y-12’s uranium-machining activities.
In order for this strategy to be successful, the Red Team report says significant changes need to be made in the federal management of the project. The report recommends that a senior career executive – not a political appointee – be put in charge of not just this project but assume “ownership” of the overall enriched uranium mission. The existing structure, with multiple executives in a say-so position, has created confusion, according to the team’s report.
“This career executive must own and accept all of the requirement and most focus in particular on those that are significant cost and schedule drivers (e.g., seismic considerations) and the associated risks,” the report states.
Much work has already been done in preparing the design for a 340,000-square-foot behemoth that would incorporate not only the operations now done in 9212, as well as the activities in Beta-2E and Building 9215.
The Red Team recommends that some of the designers on the earlier UPF effort be shifted to work in redesigning existing facilities to accommodate new roles.
Under the new strategy, there would still be new buildings constructed for future uranium work – especially the high-importance high-security casting operations — but they would be much smaller than the previously planned UPF. The existing design team would continue full steam ahead of those components.
But much of the emphasis is on getting out of 9212 as quickly as possible, because the schedule is of the utmost concern, the team noted.
It’s not yet clear how the NNSA plans to proceed or whether it will carry out the team’s recommendations.
“We are reviewing the report,” NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said.
To make this strategy work and safely execute the uranium missions, the Red Team said it will be important to aggressively reduce the inventory of uranium in 9212, the highest-risk facility. That includes moving “Material At Risk” and “making full use” of HEUMF as a storage and stage facility. Moving uranium out of Beta-2E and 9215 will make more room for missions currently done in 9212.
There also will be some major reinvestments to ensure continued operations in some of the Y-12 facilities, such as Beta-2E and 9215.
The team also made a point of emphasis of reducing the amount of liquids in processing the uranium at Y-12, There is some suggestions that the team at Y-12 work in concert with their counterparts from the UK on dry machining capabilities.
The Review Team found the Beta-2E facility to be in pretty good shape and designated it as an “enduring facility,” capable of operating for at least another 25 years.
The 9215 facility was designated as an “interim facility,” with expectations of less than 25 years of operations.
Both will require upgrades, especially with the HVAC and electrical systems, as well as structural improvements.
Both facilities also will need replacement of fire-suppression sprinkler heads that are nearing 50 years old.
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