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Oak Ridge leaders push feds to keep weapons-grade uranium contract at Y-12

Oak Ridge leaders said the NNSA notified them on November 25, 2020 it intended to move forward with Phase 1 of the Erwin contract.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — The city of Oak Ridge is renewing a push to keep a weapons-grade uranium processing contract at Y-12 under newly appointed energy leaders from the Biden Administration.

In June 2019, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced intent to award the sole-source contract to BWX Technologies subsidiary Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee to purify highly enriched uranium (HEU) and convert it into useable metals for nuclear weapons. The NNSA notified Oak Ridge leaders on November 25, 2020 it intended to move forward with Phase 1 of the Erwin contract.

The contract has been with the Y-12 National Security Complex for decades, which is currently building a modernized uranium processing facility to facilitate future contracts by phasing out aged Manhattan Project-era infrastructure that has become "too old and brittle."

Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said the work should stay in the Oak Ridge region to prevent economic loss, expenses and "unnecessary risks" to the community from transferring highly enriched uranium to and from Y-12's materials facility.

“The proposed contract is the result of an unsolicited proposal and would result in significant economic loss to the greater Oak Ridge/Knoxville region," Gooch said. "Our highly trained and skilled work force at Y-12 cannot be replicated and should continue to perform this national security work at the federal government’s state-of-the-art facilities under construction at Y-12."

A representative with the NNSA Wednesday addressed some of these concerns, saying Phase 1 has yet to start. When it does, the NNSA said it will review the results to determine if it will issue NSA a Phase 2 contract for HEU processing.

Shayela Hassan with the NNSA said the contract would not impact jobs at Y-12, saying they remain committed to continuing its mission there in the long-term.

"NNSA remains fully committed to Y-12 as the Nation’s Uranium Center of Excellence, as evidenced by continued increasing NNSA investments of over $2 billion this year for national security programs on the campus," she said. "Y-12 will not see a reduction in work scope, or in employment, related to this action. NNSA’s long term plan is to consolidate HEU recycling and recovery at Y-12."

According to Hassan, the work under the NFS contract is needed because Y-12 will lack conversion capabilities once wet-chemistry purification systems go offline. Y-12 is working to bring a new purified metal production capability online, electrorefining, by 2023 that would take place in an existing facility -- Building 9215. 

Electrorefining lacks conversion capability to turn oxides into metal, though, so the NFS contract is being considered to "bridge the gap" until Y-12 can establish oxide conversion capability. Hassan said that capability is not planned to be established at Y-12 until roughly 2030, and would also take place in Building 9215.

Mike Thompson, President of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council that represents more than 1,400 workers at Y-12, believes a decision on the uranium processing contract needs to wait until after a new contractor takes charge of Y-12 -- saying NFS, the company that runs the Erwin facility, may become involved in the bidding process.

"A decision of this magnitude should not be made during a transition to new leadership at the federal level and pending the selection of a new contractor at the Y-12 National Security Complex," he said. "Issuing a sole-source contract for work to be performed by a company that may be involved in bidding on the Y-12 contract appears to be ill-timed."

Oak Ridge leaders are asking congressional leaders to oppose sealing a contract with the Erwin facility, saying Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga) and others had reservations about the plan. Congress had directed an independent review of all available options in 2020, but the city said that has not been completed yet as far as it knows. 

The NNSA recently had expressed dissatisfaction with Y-12's current management -- Consolidated Nuclear Security -- over what it called longstanding safety and security issues, and announced last summer it will allow its contract with the company to expire in September 2021. The DOE is taking bids for a new contractor to run Y-12.

On January 22, a United Nations treaty outlawing nuclear weapons took effect after a two-thirds majority of states ratified it. The ban is largely symbolic, though, as the United States and other nuclear weapon states have not joined the treaty. The U.S. has instead said it would stay committed to the non-proliferation treaty.