Uranium processing facility faces delay, raising issues of cost, safety
The government has confirmed that, based on the latest estimates, the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge won't become operational until 2025 -- and that's just the first phase of what's now become a three-phase project.
Just a few years ago, the entire project at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant was supposed to be completed around 2020. According to information contained in the U.S. Department of Energy's newest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, which was submitted to Congress last month, the fully equipped UPF won't be available until 2038.
The delayed timetable raises more questions about the eventual cost of UPF, which previously had a cost range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion.
It also raises questions about the safety of extended operations in the plant's World War II-era production facilities -- including the 9212 uranium-processing complex, which has been described as deteriorated, dilapidated and impossible to bring up to modern-day standards.
In response to questions, Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-independent part of DOE, confirmed that the 2014 stockpile management plan for the nuclear weapons program "contains the most current estimate on the operational date for UPF. " He added: "This is based on current design and planned funding. The schedule and cost will be fully refined when the formal baseline is completed."
The project's baseline, including a detailed cost estimate, apparently won't be revealed until the design is at least 90 percent completed, and that's not expected until this time next year.
Wyatt would not discuss the current cost estimate for UPF, which reportedly is on the rise, but he acknowledged that the biggest factor in the delayed schedule was the forced redesign of the building because of the "space/fit" issue that became problematic in August 2012. The original design effort would not accommodate all of the needed equipment, and so the design team had to raise the roof by 13 feet and make other adjustments.
''The delay is primarily related to the space/fit issue," Wyatt said via email.
The NNSA did not immediately respond to questions about the impact on worker safety if Y-12 is forced to extend operations at the 9212 uranium complex until 2025.
For years, UPF supporters have pushed for an accelerated schedule in order to get out of 9212 as soon as possible.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has frequently raised questions about current conditions at the Y-12 facilities, which don't meet seismic standards and other safety-related codes.
Some shops in the 9212 complex were constructed during the Manhattan Project and are still used to process bomb-grade uranium for reuse in nuclear weapons and for fuel in the nation's nuclear-powered submarines. There have been repeated equipment failures and inconsistent operations.
In a December 2009 interview, Darrel Kohlhorst, then the general manager at Y-12, noted plans to spend about $100 million over the next decade to maintain safety systems at 9212 and other old facilities.
''But, even that, that has an end. OK?" Kohlhorst said. "And in that 2018-2020 time frame, I think everybody is saying at that point if you don't have a new facility, you may be out of luck. Because there's going to become a trigger point where the infrastructure, where this facility, is just not safe to continue operating."