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Activists target funding for Y-12 project
Billion-dollar price tag for center

By Frank Munger
Posted November 12, 2012 at 6 a.m.

Dozens of activist groups have asked Congress to constrain funding for the Uranium Processing Facility and not authorize an accelerated construction plan for the multibillion-dollar project at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.

The groups, including the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and a number of national groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility, joined together for a letter delivered to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The letter, which is signed by representatives of more than 60 groups, cites the government project's uncertain price tag, currently estimated at a range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion, and the National Nuclear Security Administration's recent acknowledgement of "space/fit" issues that will require a redesign of the UPF building.

Activists also claim that plans for the new facility at Y-12 have a capacity that far exceeds the needs for a downsized weapons arsenal.

"The UPF is being designed with a production capacity of 80 warhead secondaries per year to accommodate future production of increased numbers of warhead secondaries rather than being sized to meet the mission requirements of a down-sizing stockpile," the letter states.

In their letter to Levin, the groups wrote that any investment in the nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure should adhere to fiscally responsible guidelines and correspond to the nation's nuclear weapons policies. They also said that accelerating construction could actually end up costing more money.

In a statement, Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and a longtime critic of the proposed project, said: "The Uranium Processing Facility is a stunning example of the worst in government accountability. It is already breaking records for wasting money and it continues to struggle to meet safety and technology standards. We are pleased that the UPF is drawing the attention of so many other organizations . . ."

John Eschenberg, federal project director for UPF, spoke last week at the Energy, Technology and Environmental Business Association's conference in Knoxville. He called UPF a "game-changing project" and said it will be "much more than just a bomb plant." Eschenberg said the new production facility will be needed no matter the size of the nation's future nuclear arsenal, noting that the same facility used to build new parts for old weapons will also be used to dismantle weapons systems and recycle or otherwise process the materials.

"The need for UPF remains unchanged," he said.

Despite the fact that at least part of the uranium facility will have to be redesigned to accommodate all the planned equipment, Eschenberg said the project still falls within the existing cost range. A firm price tag on the UPF won't be available until after the design is 90 percent complete, and the federal official indicated that design milestone won't be reached until next fall.

About $500 million has been spent so far on UPF design and planning, with the team now making preparations for pre-construction work and purchases for the project.

Richard Brown, procurement manager for UPF, said about $400 million in procurements will be made over the next 18 months. Brown said about 800 suppliers have expressed interest in the Oak Ridge project, with about half of those in Tennessee, especially in the Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga areas.

About 600 people are currently working on UPF's design, and Eschenberg said peak employment of 1,500 is expected during construction.

© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.

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