LASG header
Follow TrishABQ on Twitter Follow us
"Forget the Rest" blog


NWMM banner


The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has raised multiple concerns about safety planning for the Uranium Processing Facility, the high-priority, high-dollar project that’s nearing the start of construction at the Y-12 National Security Complex. The safety board has strongly supported the UPF as a needed replacement for the antiquated uranium-processing operations at Y-12, but the DNFSB—including chairman Peter Winokur, who addressed the concerns in an April 2 letter to NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino—has emphasized the need to tighten up the safety issues and comply with DOE’s nuclear requirements. Following the release of the letter, critics of the UPF piggy-backed on the defense board’s concerns and called for a slowdown, rather than the planned acceleration, of construction that’s currently scheduled to begin later this year. “The Board has determined that safety is not adequately integrated into the design,” Winokur wrote. “Multiple significant unaddressed and unresolved issues exist with the [Preliminary Safety Design Report] and the development of the underlying safety basis for the facility.”

Winokur outlined multiple issues and said the board is worried that the NNSA and its contractors have not documented a strategy for meeting Department of Energy safety requirements at the UPF. The specific concerns include the uranium facility’s confinement strategy following a major seismic accident; systems and structures to avoid an inadvertent nuclear criticality during an earthquake; the need for a “thorough” evaluation of unmitigated accident and hazard scenarios; and the need to identify controls to protect the public in the case of small fires with significant off-site issues of toxicity. Winokur also cited the need to use “reasonably conservative values” to calculate dose consequences for multiple accident scenarios. “Given the hazards present in the UPF, the Board has determined that the safety controls and their associated safety functions and functional requirements will not provide adequate protection for site workers and the public,” the Board said in a report accompanying Winokur’s letter. The Board requested a report and a briefing in response to its concerns within 30 days.

NNSA: UPF Safety Still a Work in Progress

The NNSA responded to Winokur’s letter by emphasizing the importance of safety and suggesting that any concerns raised by the board would be addressed and likely incorporated into the building design. NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha noted that the design of the UPF has not been completed and that the agency was still taking “all ideas and suggestions into account so that we’re building a safe facility.” He said that many of the issues raised by the DNFSB had already been addressed and were reflected in a revised Safety Design strategy that is pending approval. “This Safety Design Strategy documents upgrades to the UPF design to improve safety systems, such as confinement ventilation and fire barriers,” McConaha said. “Safety is a priority to this project and we will ensure that the UPF will be built with the full set of safety controls and features necessary to protect workers and the public.”

Steven Wyatt, a federal spokesman at Y-12, said the design of the UPF is about 70 percent complete, and he emphasized that there is still time to make sure all safety issues are studied and addressed. In fact, Wyatt said, some of the concerns raised by the DNFSB letter have already been dealt with. The UPF, when constructed, will have a “full set” of safety controls, Wyatt said.

Changes Give Rise to Concerns

A seven-page attachment to Winokur’s letter addressed the safety concerns in some detail. In the summary, the board indicated concern that the UPF plan may have weakened the safety strategy for the big project over time. When first reviewing the conceptual design back in 2007, the board noted that the strategy used safety-significant passive controls to segregate nuclear materials, reduce accident consequences and preclude a post-accident nuclear criticality event. Overall, there was a “reasonably conservative” Safety Design Strategy, the board noted. “While the board was concerned about the lack of high-level key safety decisions in the SDS documents at conceptual design, the proposed control set provided a basis for the Board to determine that the project a robust safety posture,” the report states. “Now that the project has advanced to preliminary design, the project team has made a number of changes in the safety classification and seismic design of safety-related systems, structures and components that give rise to concerns.”

Much of the Board’s concern stems from seismic-related safety design issues and several systems, structures and components that were downgraded since the Board reviewed the facility’s Safety Design Strategy in 2007, and for which there was not adequate justification. The Board said that the facility’s confinement ventilation system was downgraded from Seismic Design Category (SDC) 2 to SDC-1, its criticality prevention controls were downgraded from SDC-3 to SDC-2, and its Criticality Accident Alarm System went from SDC-3 to SDC-1. The Board also said that the PSDR did not adequately analyze all hazards properly, including hazards within the Saltless Direct Oxide Reduction process, those dealing with small fires, worst-case fire scenarios, and that project officials were not conservative enough in planning for criticality accidents.

Activists Call for Project to Be Stopped

The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance has fought the project from the early planning stages, calling the UPF unnecessary and unconscionably expensive at a time when the United States is facing serious debt issues. Following the DNFSB’s latest report, the activist group urged the government to put the UPF on hold. “It’s time to put the brakes on the rush to build the UPF,” OREPA coordinator Ralph Hutchison said.

The Obama Administration proposed a big boost in funding for UPF in FY 2013 in order to speed the work on the new facility and to vacate the existing production facilities—notably the 9212 complex—as soon as possible. OREPA noted that design issues at UPF also were raised in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s FY 2011 evaluation of B&W Y-12, the contractor at Y-12. “Clearly, there were significant challenges, both with site readiness and with the safety design report,” Hutchison said. “It’s crazy—and fiscally irresponsible—to push forward without taking time to resolve these issues carefully.” NNSA’s Wyatt declined to comment on the statements from the peace activist group.
—Todd Jacobson and staff reports

^ back to top

2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106, Phone: 505-265-1200

home page calendar contact contribute