Uranium Processing Facility the focus of safety meetings

(WBIR - Downtown Knoxville) Plans for a new Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 in Oak Ridge continue to move forward, despite several embarrassing design flaws last year and a mushrooming price tag.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board held a full day of public meetings at the Knoxville Convention Center on Tuesday to discuss the progress of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) and safety concerns associated with aging infrastructure at the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility.

UPF Role and Need Explained

The UPF has been dubbed the most expensive construction project in Tennessee history with price estimates currently ranging from between $7 billion to $12 billion dollars. The mayor of Oak Ridge says the plant will have an economic impact six times greater than the Volkswagen plant built in Chattanooga. Yet, how many "everyday people" in East Tennessee are truly aware of what the proposed UPF is or what will happen there?

In layman's terms, the UPF will be a massive high-tech garage and repair shop to perform maintenance on the nation's nuclear weapons. The country's nuclear arsenal is old and in many cases the weapons were not built with the intention of being stored for decades. The stockpile of weapons is akin to a lot full of classic cars that must be maintained, tuned up, and restored to remain in mint condition.

In essence, building the UPF is building a new Y-12. Right now the aforementioned maintenance on nuclear materials takes place at Y-12, but it is done in outdated buildings constructed 70 years ago during World War II and the Cold War. The aging infrastructure poses a litany of safety risks, including concerns about its ability to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Plans for a new Uranium Processing Facility began several years ago, but hit several delays due to problems with funding and design issues.

Fixing Flaws and "Space-Fit" Embarrassment

Tuesday is not the first time the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has held public meetings in Knoxville to discuss the UPF. However, this latest round of public talks had a much different tone compared to October 2012 when the board lambasted UPF project leaders for embarrassing design flaws that sent the project back to the drawing board. The designs alone had cost $500 million dollars at that point.

In 2012, one of the main design flaws mentioned was the roof being 13 feet too short for the equipment to fit inside the facility. Tuesday the board was told by panelists involved in planning that those "space-fit" issues have mostly been corrected.

"This is a whole lot better than last year when they went, 'Oops, we tried to fit 10 pounds in a five pound bag.' They certainly have more people working with the team and were prepared to answer questions by the board today," said Tom Beehan, mayor of Oak Ridge. "I think in the last year they have brought in the right group of people to work together and communicate with each other so we don't have those kinds of problems anymore."

Time, Dollars, and Safety Fears

Estimated cost of the UPF has grown exponentially over time. The construction of the UPF would take place in three phases. The main building would be included in the first phase and its target completion date is slated for 2025.

As the process drags on and the price tag expands, the list of public speakers at Tuesday's meetings illuminated a couple of main concerns. The first being a concern that the government may decide it could be cheaper to build the UPF somewhere other than Oak Ridge.

The second concern is the burgeoning bill and other budget pressures may cause contractors to cut corners at the expense of safety.

"People should be concerned about their safety because compromises are being made in Oak Ridge which increases the risks for all of us. That goes for whether it's running the current facilities past their safe lifetime or whether it's building a new facility that does not have maximum safety controls in it," said Ralph Hutchison with the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.

Several anti-nuclear weapons activists spoke during the public comment portions of Tuesday's meetings. The bottom line is they do not want the UPF constructed, but if the government moves forward with the plan they repeatedly requested additional safety by constructing the facility underground. They said above-ground structures are more vulnerable attack, as demonstrated by the July 2012 security breach at Y-12 when a nun and two men vandalized the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility.

As for any worries that the UPF will not remain in Oak Ridge, none of Tuesday's speakers specifically mentioned this possibility. However, a slew of officials ranging from county mayors, chamber of commerce presidents, and union representatives addressed the board with what amounted to a sales pitch on the virtues of Oak Ridge and its existing expert labor force.

"From an economic standpoint and community standpoint, it's really important that this go forward and they do it right," said Beehan.


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