When three Transform Now Plowshares activists penetrated the ultra-high-security zone at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, it got attention. Congress held hearings to find out how it happened; NNSA officials who had managed to defer most of the attention to their contractors were required to answer questions.
It is time for Congress to use that power to require more answers from NNSA at Y12. Same question, different subject. This time, the How did this happen? should focus on the almost-beyond-belief incompetence revealed at the October 2 Safety Board hearing in Knoxville, TN. At that hearing, NNSA and B&W Y12 revealed that, after spending 5 years and more than half a billion dollars designing the nation’s next nuclear weapon production plant, the Uranium Processing Facility, the building is not big enough to house the equipment planned for it!
They call it the “space/fit issue,” and, yes, it is as bad as it sounds. The “space/fit issue” requires an extensive redesign of the facility.
At the hearing, the Safety Board asked Don Cook, Deputy Administrator for the NNSA, the question: “How did this happen?” Cook declined to give a substantive answer. Later, B&W Y12 managers were asked, “What was going on?” Again, although they were pressed, B&W’s management team, who had introduced themselves as having 180 years cumulative experience, could not or would not or, in any case, did not answer.
But it is not a total mystery. One of the root causes of the “space/fit issue” was the need to thicken the interior walls of the UPF to meet the concerns of the Safety Board about seismic integrity. Concerns that were first raised more than five years ago—in 2007. At the time, NNSA shrugged, offered assurances that it would be taken care of, and pushed on with design.
The Safety Board persisted, raising concerns when the NNSA and B&W Y12 decided to save time by conflating two important steps in the design process, Critical Decision 2 and Critical Decision 3 and, in the process, drop the requirement to prepare a Preliminary Safety Design Analysis. This decision would also come back to bite NNSA later. Years pass, discussions happen, assurances are issued. Tennessee’s Senators get wind of problems but speak confidently that everything will be addressed right in the end.
Little did they know. In April 2012, the Safety Board, apparently frustrated by the failure of internal discussions to produce results, went public with a letter and a report that said NNSA had failed to integrate safety into the design of the UPF, and that decisions to reduce criticality safety standards had compromised worker and public safety.
Still, NNSA pushed on, announcing in July 2012 they had achieved 75% design completion and projecting they would reach 90% design completion by September 2012. Announcing another shortcut, the NNSA said it would break its UPF project into four smaller projects, thereby forgoing the need to get headquarters approval before beginning to push dirt. And, NNSA said, they would begin site preparation and concrete pouring before they had completed a baseline cost estimate which is required by DOE before construction could begin. The new timeline would begin building in September 2012 and provide Congress with a first cost estimate a year later—September 2013.
Then came October 2.
With the revelation that everything was not, in fact, all working out, neither Senator Lamar Alexander nor Senator Bob Corker retracted their earlier assurances. And when NNSA failed (refused?) to answer the Safety Board’s questions about the root cause of the half-billion-dollar design screw-up, neither Senator called for accountability.
So we are. The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance has been critical of NNSA management deficiencies in the past. Now we are wondering, out loud, if anyone in authority will call NNSA to account. And if not now, when? What would it take for Congress to rein in this stunningly incompetent agency?
In the twelve years of its existence, NNSA has demonstrated only one fully competent capacity—they consistently take taxpayer dollars and give it to contractors for construction projects which fail to meet deadlines and exceed cost projections by more than 100%.
It is time for the appropriate committees in Congress to take action.