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In another blow to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s project management record, the agency confirmed this week that the multi-billion-dollar Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge must be redesigned to fit the necessary equipment into the 340,000-square-foot building that’s been under design for years. Safety concerns were supposed to be the focal point of a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Oct. 2 public hearing in Knoxville, Tenn., but the redesign news proved to be a revelation: that after years of trying, involving hundreds of people and half a billion dollars, the design was going to have to be reworked. This was a particularly stunning event because, as Federal Project Director John Eschenberg acknowledged, there had been no major change in scope or add-ons to explain the space/fit issue.

Eschenberg said the NNSA had not yet determined the root causes for why the building design didn’t meet the UPF space needs, although an investigation is under way. “The project prematurely established a hard footprint,” he said. He suggested the problem could be related to having the early design team doing work from three different geographic locations. More information should be available in about three weeks after an engineering evaluation is completed, he said.

Safety Issues Raised at Hearing

The DNFSB members hammered away at a number of safety issues, especially expressing concerns about the NNSA’s plans to delay the transfer of some operations— currently housed at Building 9215 and Beta-2E—into the UPF in order to focus and accelerate efforts to get out of the dilapidated 9212 uranium complex. But there was no avoiding the challenges of redesigning a facility at a time when design was supposed to be 90 percent complete and pushing toward a definitive baseline. There have been reports for months that the project planners were having a difficult time squeezing the UPF’s equipment into the facility, but Eschenberg said during a June interview that the space/fit problems were not that unusual and that it would be worked out during the final stages of design.

Steven Stokes, the staff leader for the DNFSB’s Nuclear Facilities Design and Infrastructure Group, noted that such a redesign “is a serious undertaking with the potential for significant impacts on public and worker safety,” with greater impacts on the projects because the problem had been found in the late stages of design. The cost range for the Uranium Processing Facility has been officially estimated at $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion, and officials weren’t able to say how the redesign would change that. Eschenberg told the Board that in order to create more space for the facility’s production activities that the roof of the building will have to be raised about 13 feet. After the meeting, he acknowledged that would add to the cost of the project. In addition, the concrete foundation slab will have to be about a foot thicker, and the walls will have to be thickened from 18 inches to 30 inches, he said. Eschenberg said those are the major structure implications of the space/fit problem.

Issues Found ‘Just in Time’

Board Chairman Peter Winokur wanted to know if the space/fit issues were going to create further problems with the safety issues, and Eschenberg said he didn’t think the design changes would change the functional aspects of things such as the fire barriers. Eschenberg indicated that some issues were discovered “just in time,” and DNFSB Member Joseph Bader picked up on that theme regarding the changes taking place in design and related safety issues. “To me, this is a major step,” Bader said. “This is the last time it can be done before construction starts. Is that right?” He said the late-arriving design changes were serving to reinforce the Board’s concerns that there was a gap between the maturity of the building design and the incorporation of necessary safety guides and he asked Eschenberg about the risks. At this point, Eschenberg said, it’s more of a cost risk than a risk to designs protective of safety.

Despite the design changes and uncertainties, Eschenberg said after the DNFSB hearing that some plans for the UPF are likely to proceed later this year, including some work on site readiness. “Today, our plans as we’ve talked before, remain constant. That is we want to start the site prep work, which is simply to relocate the main thoroughfare through the valley—Bear Creek Road—and extend the haul road. There are some minor other work scopes that we can do. For example, there are some underground infrastructures that we need to move. So all of those things we can begin executing through the Army Corps of Engineers soonest. These things are not directly coupled [to the redesign effort].”

Eschenberg: Confidence in CD-2 Schedule ‘Eroded’

The planned demolition of Building 9107, a task that was to be done by B&W Y-12, has apparently been put on the back burner. “That is not something we needed right away,” Eschenberg said. “Because there are some other things we’re going to buy. We’re going to buy the concrete batch plant. That sets us up very nice so that as we proceed we’ve got all the infrastructure we need as we set about digging the large excavation, beginning the backfill and then ultimately getting into the nuclear part of the building.” Eschenberg said the UPF team is still hopeful of achieving CD-2 by September 2013, at which time there would be a definitive price tag and schedule for the project. But Eschenberg didn’t sound confident in the new date. “Now, I will tell you that my confidence in our ability to meet that date has been degraded, it’s been eroded,” he said.

9215, Beta-2E Strategy Raises Concerns

While much of the focus of the hearing was on the UPF design changes, Board members repeatedly expressed their concern as to the potential impacts of the strategy to defer putting some of the Y-12 production operations into the UPF. Questions were raised as to whether this would create additional safety issues at 9215 and Beta-2E, which are not quite as old as 9212 but are far from new. Don Cook, the NNSA’s deputy administrator for Defense Programs, said there are potential risks all around but the biggest risk is with 9212. Getting out of there is the top priority, he said. The National Nuclear Security Administration plan is to push getting out of 9212. That will defer the transfer of the work done at 921—machining of highly enriched uranium and related inspections—and the work at Beta-2E—where the assembly and dismantlement of warhead parts is done. At present, there is no specific timetable for when the 9215 and Beta-2E work would be incoporated into UPF, but there were indications it could be delayed for 10 or 20 years.

Bader noted there are risks to these kinds of decisions. Just because 9212 is the oldest facility doesn’t mean those other facilities aren’t old, too, he said. “In 2030, the facilities [9215 and Beta-2E] will be older than 9212 is today,” Bader said. The Board also raised issues about how the delayed introduction of the 9215 and Beta-2E work into the UPF would impact safety systems and the other operations already taking place there. The UPF project team members reassured the board that the design of UPF and construction and preparation of the facility would take into account those other operations, all the way until it’s actually ready for installation of the equipment associated with the work done at that those facilities. That would help ensure there’ll be adequate room for the eventual introduction of that work and help ease any future problems, even if there are some changes in the needs by then, they said.

Delay of Safety Analysis Called a Mistake

Another major topic at the hearing was UPF team’s decision several years ago to cancel development of the Preliminary Safety Design Report for the project, a prerequisite for establishing Critical Decision 2 and—according to the Board—a must for demonstrating that safety is integrated into the preliminary design. The report was later picked up again and the UPF completed a PSDR in 2011 and submitted for NNSA review, which identified many issues. Eschenberg admitted that temporarily abandoning the work on a PSDR was a mistake. “We should not have deviated from our practice,” he told the board. —From staff reports

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