NNSA adopts Red Team’s alternative to UPF; Klotz praises Mason for ‘extraordinary job’

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NNSA Administrator Frank G. Klotz talks about the Uranium Processing Facility and other topics during a Wednesday interview. (KNS photos/Amy Smotherman Burgess)

0605_kclo_klotz4 (2)The top federal official overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex confirmed Wednesday that the government plans to adopt an alternative strategy for upgrading and modernizing the uranium operations at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

Frank G. Klotz, a retired Air Force lieutenant-general who heads the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the NNSA plans to use an expert team’s findings and recommendations as a preliminary blueprint for how to redo the project heretofore known as the Uranium Processing Facility.

“I think there’s almost nothing in that report that we disagree with,” Klotz said during an interview at Y-12’s New Hope Center.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason headed the so-called “Red Team,” which conducted an intensive month-and-a-half review of the uranium missions at Y-12 and submitted its report in mid-April to Bruce Held — who headed the NNSA on an acting basis until the Senate confirmed Klotz’ political appointment. Klotz was sworn-in April 17.

The Red Team, which included scientists, engineers and other subject-matter experts from the national laboratories and elsewhere, recommended dramatic changes from the previous strategy for building UPF.

Instead of consolidating all of Y-12’s uranium activities in a single, giant-sized building, the team suggested relocating some of the operations in existing facilities where possible. The new strategy would reportedly cut costs significantly and enable the Oak Ridge warhead-production plant to vacate the deteriorated 9212 uranium complex — parts of which were constructed in World War II — by 2025.

Mason earlier said he believed the revised approach could keep the project costs within a cap of $6.5 billion, which was part of the Red Team’s charter. The cost of the previous plan for building the UPF had reportedly soared past that cap and was estimated to cost more than $10 billion, with at least one analysis suggesting it could cost as much as $19 billion.

Klotz praised Mason for an “extraordinary job.” He said the talented Red Team accepted and met a very tough challenge.

The Red Team report made a number of recommendations, including changes in the ways the project is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The team also suggested, where possible, the use of new uranium-processing technologies that take up less space and perhaps reducing the amount of scrap uranium that’s chemically processed — at great effort and expense — to recover relatively small quantities of usable material.

Some new buildings would still be constructed at Y-12 as part of the revised approach, but the new plan will avoid the “big box” strategy that had proved inflexible and unmanageable. The original design for UPF had to scrapped in 2012 because it was too small to accommodate all of the required equipment and the space to perform maintenance.

The design problem ultimately cost about half a billion dollars, and an effort to redesign the UPF was later slowed to a great extent because there were concerns that any progress made on a new design would be superseded by the Red Team’s findings. And that’s proved to be the case.

The UPF design team has been scaled back in recent months as some tasks were put on hold. Federal Project Director John Eschenberg said Wednesday that the team now totals about 525 members. Just a couple of months ago, there were more than 800 people working on UPF engineering and design.

Klotz said the National Nuclear Security Administration is busy putting together a more detailed strategy for how to carry out the results of the Red Team’s work. He said a “working group” was appointed “to take the next step” and turn the recommendations into task orders.

The working group will “actually put in numbers, schedule, dates, ferret out the contractual issues that have to be dealt with,” he said. “So, that’s on a pretty fast pace. I can’t give you a prediction on when we’ll have finished that process. But it’s one of some urgency.”

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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.