UPF a focal point at Deterrence Summit

UPF Site RenderingConceptual view of the Uranium Processing Facility as now being designed with a “modular” approach. (Y-12 image)

Not surprisingly, given its multibillion-dollar price tag and role in national security, the  Uranium Processing Facility has been a topic of discussion at the 7th annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit, and many of the comments on the big project have been positive.

Frank G. Klotz, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said he plans to visit Oak Ridge in a few weeks to celebrate completion of an early site-preparation project associated with the UPF. Klotz said it’s important to recognize milestones and workers as the project builds momentum at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.

Klotz wasn’t specific about the event or its date, but one of his colleagues – Bob Raines, the NNSA’s associate administrator for acquisition and project management – made a reference to the work during his Thursday talk at the summit.

Raines said the “first piece” of work on the UPF had been completed $10 million under budget. While that may not be a lot compared to the ultimate $6 billion cost of the project, the federal official said the savings on the Site Readiness Sub-Project provides some “headroom” as the UPF moves forward.

“It’s a start,” Raines said.

The Obama administration recently released its budget recommendations for Fiscal Year 2016, which begins Oct. 1, and the proposed spending level for UPF was set at $430 million – a significant step up from the current year’s funding of $335 million. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who heads the powerful Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, has said the project has bipartisan support and will get what it needs to progress, although he suggested the funding level may not reach the administration’s request.

There remains great uncertainty in Washington about whether a budget will get passed by the newly configured Congress and, if so, what it will look like. During his talk on Wednesday, Klotz said the 800-pound elephant in the room was the possible return of budget sequestration and automatic budget cuts.

If the spending  caps enacted a couple of years ago do come into play, Klotz said the impacts on some nuclear weapons programs could be devastating.

Klotz said he didn’t want to go into specifics, but indicated a “great number” of activities would be affected and even noted the possibility of cancelling some programs to extend the life of aging warheads. He said the NNSA was directed by the administration to request prudent and reasonable funding levels for needed missions, and he said that’s what the agency did. But the requests also went above spending caps.

During a Wednesday roundtable discussion, a number of analysts, including some with ties to Congress, discussed the funding possibilities for updating the nuclear weapons and the weapons production complex.

One of the questions the likely “winners” and “losers” in the upcoming budget battles.

Leland Cogliani, former staffer at the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, which controls funding for the Department of Energy and NNSA, said UPF was likely to be one of the winners because it is Alexander’s biggest priority among the big nuclear projects.

There are still skeptics because of UPF’s hefty price tag.

Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the UCS did a broad review of the nuclear weapons complex a couple of years ago and recommended that UPF be reevaluated to see if it needed to be as big as proposed.

Since then, Young noted, the project’s design has been scaled down and rearranged.

“The new plan . . . seems to make some more sense,” Young said. “We’re saying they definitely made an improvement. They’re on a better path. But it’s still a lot of money for that facility. But there’s no doubt they do need some new capabilities.”

Asked if he thought $6.5 billion was affordable, Young said, “It’s hard to say.”

By itself, that’s probably an affordable number for UPF, but there are multiple other projects also up for funding at other sites in the nuclear weapons complex, he said.

“We’re not at the point where we have to make our choices yet,” Young said.

Drew Walter, who’s on the majority staff at the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday, “I think my Members are still concerned accountability on the failures we saw (during the early designs), but recognize this is incredibly important for building a responsive structure.

“So, we’re reviewing the plan that they have now, the modular approach or whatever you want to call it, And there are concerns that we’ve descoped the project but kept the $6.5 billion number of on it. Honestly, they’re hashing all this out. It’ll be a discussion for the next several years, but ultimately this is a facility that has to be built.”

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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.