Alexander talks UPF, nuclear deterrence, Appropriations & Ashton Carter

alexandersummitIn a telephone interview Thursday evening, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander talked about his expectations for the multibillion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility, his new role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, and his thoughts on newly confirmed Defense Secretary-designate Ashton Carter. Earlier that day, the Senate had confirmed Carter’s nomination by a vote of 93-5, and Alexander issued a supportive statement saying Carter’s experience would be valuable during a “critical time” at the Defense Department.

I referenced his statement on Carter and asked Tennessee’s senior senator for his views on nuclear deterrence during this period.

“I actually met with him yesterday for about 45 minutes in my office,” Alexander said. “We talked specifically about that. I asked him for his best advice on our nuclear weapons modernization program. We’ve embarked on a significant and expensive effort to make sure that our weapons work if we need to use them. And I want to make sure that (a) they work and (b) that we’re not wasting any money because we don’t have any money to waste.

“’While he was deputy secretary of defense, he was in charge of a review of our nuclear weapons modernization to try to help the Energy Department make sure it was managing it properly. So, as Secretary of Defense, he’ll be very helpful to me because he’s got experience with dealing with not only weapons modernization but with the uranium facility (UPF) as well. His advice will be very helpful as we try to allocate the billions of dollars that we’re asked to spend carefully and wisely.”

Alexander has been supportive of the Uranium Processing Facility, which is to be constructed at Y-12 in his home state, but he’s also been strongly critical at times about the project’s cost growth. He said it was he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, who set a cap of $6.5 billion for the project that’s being revised to keep costs down and allow the closure of older production facilities (notably the World War II-era 9212 complex) as soon as possible.

“The problem we were having was the cost of UPF was going up a billion dollars every time we turned around,” the Tennessee Republican said. “What we decided was to do a Red Team review and say to the managers, complete your design to 90 percent, taking into account all these factors, and you’ve got no more than $6.5 billion to spend and then come back to us with a plan and with a budget and we would like to see it built on time and on budget.”

Is the $6.5 billion an absolute cap or is that adjustable depending on what’s encountered during design and construction?

“It is time that we came to a cap, and Senator Feinstein and I gave the Red Team that number for a reason and they made their recommendations based on that,” Alexander said. “We can’t have a project that goes up a half-billion or a billion dollars every year just because somebody comes up with a new idea.

“It’s a cap that we expect … The new uranium facility should be designed to spend no more than $6.5 billion. That’s the direction we gave to the project manager.”

I asked Senator Alexander about a recent report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board that raised some concerns about the planned life extension of a couple of key Y-12 facilities (Beta-2E and Building 9215). The extended use of existing facilities is part of the overall plan to scale down UPF and was one of the recommendations of the Red Team.

Alexander didn’t address the report specifically, but he said the board’s findings should be addressed during the UPF design effort.

“The safety of workers at Oak Ridge is of paramount concern. But one of the most important recommendations of the Red Team was that we have two types of buildings. One for the highly secure facilities and one for the less secure facilities. That saves a huge amount of money,” he said. “And, so, what Senator Feinstein and I have said is we’re not going to appropriate any dollars for building until the design is 90 percent complete. And taking the opinions of the defense safety board into account is part of the design process. So we will not be building any building for UPF until design is complete.”

Alexander said any issues with existing facilities, not just new construction, should be addressed in this period.

“Having said that, there is money in the President’s budget and there’ll be money in Congress’ budget to, No. 1, continue site-preparation work; No. 2, to continue the design work; No. 3, there’s some moving of equipment from one building to another building that can continue during the next fiscal year.”

Alexander said he doesn’t plan for his subcommittee to hold a hearing specifically on UPF.

“Senator Feinstein and I will be having regular meetings with the project managers to make sure that the design is proceeding properly and that once the design is complete the project is on time and on budget . . . But I don’t see the need for a hearing on that,” he said.

Questions regarding the UPF will be a part of other budget hearings, Alexander said.

Asked if the government can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each on UPF while also spending hundreds of millions on the MOX facility at Savannah River, Alexander said, “Well, that’s a completely separate question. We have to take each of these projects one by one. And I think we’ve done a good job of getting hold of the Uranium Processing Facility. It may be the largest federal construction project in the country. It’s certainly one of them. And there are other projects, including MOX . . . and whatever needs to be done at Sandia that we’re going to have to address as well.”

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason recently remarked that having a federal budget is extremely important, even if it’s not totally positive, because operating under a Continuing Resolution means no new starts and has other restrictions.

Alexander said he agreed with that assessment.

“‘’Well, we’re going to do our best to have a budget,” he said. “It’s been several years since we’ve had one, and I certainly agree with that. A continuing resolution is really lazy governing. Each year, in our subcommittee, we have eliminated major projects and added money to other projects. That’s the way we should do our appropriations work rather that just spend next year what we spent last year.

“Plus, managers, like the director of the lab or the project managers for Y-12 actually save money for the taxpayer when they have the certainty of a steady appropriations process. I hope that as far as UPF goes, I fully expect that once we figure out what the proper number is, that there’ll be sufficient funds to continue site preparation, to complete design work and to do some moving of equipment that is necessary during the next fiscal year and that for the next several years we’ll be able to appropriate several hundred million dollars a year until the project is completed. If we should do that on a planned and steady basis, it’ll save the taxpayers lots of money and speed up construction.”

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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.