Let the pushback begin.
When Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA, introduced the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures, H.R. 3974, on the floor of the US House of Representatives, he also introduced a concept that has drawn a quick response from the Republicans on the House Armed Services committee—actual accountability in spending for nuclear weapons. Markey’s bill poses two questions about nuclear spending across the board— 1) Do we really need to spend this money? and 2) Can we afford to spend this money?
They are both important questions, because investing deeply in nuclear weapons during a time of financial crisis means we are asking other programs to do without, and we should not do that without clear justification. Investing deeply in nuclear weapons programs also sends a powerful message to the rest of the world, including some countries whose nuclear ambitions we would like to curb, like Iran.
Among the items Congressman Markey included in his SANE act were planned investments in new bomb production facilities—the plutonium facility at Los Alamos (the CMRR-NF) and the highly enriched uranium facility in Oak Ridge (the UPF). The National Nuclear Security Administration has wanted to build new bomb plants for more than twenty years, and with Records of Decisions issued in the last year for both plants, it’s time for construction funding.
Markey’s bill zeroes out funding for both bomb plants.
President Obama’s budget proposal does cut funding for the CMRR-NF and it accelerates funding for the UPF to the tune of $340 million for construction. (Note: the CMRR-NF is not dead—Congress can put the money back in.)
The pushback began February 15, when Congressman Michael Turner sent a letter back to Congressman Markey. Laying his trump cards on the table—photos from deteriorating facilities in Oak Ridge and Los Alamos that the new bomb plants would replace—Turner invited Markey to travel to the sites with him to see for himself why we should spend nearly $15 billion to replace Building 9212 in Oak Ridge and the existing plutonium facilities at Los Alamos.
Pictures from inside Building 9212 at Y12 are of particular interest to OREPA because we have been insisting for several years now that DOE should document rather than assert that it needs to build an entire new facility rather than modernize-in-place, reducing the size of operations from Cold War levels to the capacity NNSA says it required to maintain and upgrade the stockpile (from 125 warheads/year to 10 warheads/year). But so far it’s been their assertions against our skepticism because Building 9212 is a Q-cleared building and the public can’t see for itself.
Thanks to Rep. Turner, we do finally get a peek behind the curtain. Turner headlines his photos with a note that Building 9212 was built in 1945. He does not mention the upgrades performed since then—some $76 million worth in the last year alone, according to press reports.
Anyway here’s what we see:
1. 120/208 volt lighting panel installed in mid-1940s.
You probably have something that looks a lot like this in your house—in the basement or a closet. It is covered by a gray metal door that has been removed from the box we see here and set off to the side—you can see the yellow label in the lower right corner. Inside, it looks like a bunch of wires routed to fuses/breakers and a grounding strip. The wires are black, red or white. Modern wiring requires an additional bare copper wire dedicated to grounding—it’s kind of a redundancy safeguard. This box is set into the wall—standard procedure. We can’t tell if this box has ground wires or not, but it doesn’t look like it; we wouldn’t expect them in a vintage 1940’s era box. If it did, they would come in from the top or sides and track with the white wires and be screwed to the same bar at the bottom of the panel.
If this load center needs to be replaced, it would take my father, who was an electrician at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube steel mill for 30 years, maybe a day and a half to do it, allowing for running into some unforeseen snag which seems always to happen when I start messing with the wiring at my house. If I had to switch it out, it would take me two days; including the call to my father to remind me about the settings on my meter.
2. 480 volt motor control center installed in the early 1950’s.
The control center is the light green cabinet to the left. Switching this out is a bigger job than the panel box. I wouldn’t try it. There’s no apparent reason why it needs to be switched out if it is still functional. There does seem to be some corrosion along the bottom of the cabinet—maybe from mopping the floor week after week, year after year. I’d be willing to bet $7.5 billion dollars this load center could be completely replaced for less than $100,000, quadrupled of course for contractor overhead and routine gluttony.
3. 120/208 lighting panel due to chemical environment in parts of Building 9212.
The unsightliness is called rust. Two options for cleaning this up—a wire brush and some paint, or a new box cover. Either one, under $1,000 including labor. Can’t get a replacement cover for a box this old? Whole new box, $300; labor, two days. This does not appear to be an industrial dust-proof application, so it probably should get an upgrade during replacement. Triple the price—I think we can still bring it in under $7.5 billion.
4. An estimated 30 heating and air conditioning units are 30 years old and still being used at Building 9212.
Man, they just don’t make them like that anymore. Really, they don’t. Isn’t it great that heating and air units are 30 years old and still doing the job? Of course, they won’t last forever. Probably there should be a program to stage replacements one at a time. If we buy in bulk, we could probably get them for $25,000 apiece (double that for markup for the government, since NNSA can’t keep track of costs and expenditures all that well—after all, they’re bomb builders, not sophomore accounting majors). Installing them is likely a considerable bit of work, but we ought to gain efficiencies over time as we repeat a process, so let’s say $50,000 apiece for labor. Checking the calculator, that comes out to $3,000,000 to replace these units. In case we lowballed it, let’s double it to $6 million. Check the calculator once more and yes! that IS less than $7.5 billion dollars.
5. Some electrical panels installed in Building 9212 are still in use, and the only replacement parts that exist come from similar panels that have been removed.
Are you kidding me? Oak Ridge has had a Home Depot for seven or eight years now; it’s about three miles from Y12. There is no excuse for not upgrading this equipment. Cost-wise, it would probably be cheaper to replace the units now than scratch around and piece together replacement parts. As for the contractors and the NNSA oversight people who haven’t seen to this years ago, they should be called on the carpet.
6.Workers in hazardous materials suits fixing a rusting valve in the basement of Building 9212.
The last picture is of rusting pipes in the basement of building 9212. No explanation of why the rusted valve needs to be fixed. But some observations: iron pipes rust; iron pipes in a chemical environment may rust even more. They also last 150 years or more. Valves and joints are the weak points, especially if they are not maintained. But a LOT of valves can be replaced for $7.5 billion dollars. And joints, if they are problems, can be repaired. If these are waste pipes, it all may be complicated by the presence of contamination (hazmat suits) which needs to be cleaned up anyway, now or later, and now is likely cheaper.
I have to say, I expected the pictures to look a lot worse, especially from claims that have been made repeatedly in the past. Where is the concrete falling from the ceiling? Where are the gaping holes in the roof? Cracks in the walls or foundation? Where are any of the structural defects that would warrant replacing the whole facility rather than making repairs in place?
Are conditions so bad they can’t show them because it would undermine their current plan to pour tens of millions of dollars into Building 9212 while the UPF is under construction? Or maybe things aren’t that bad and there is no urgent need to replace Building 9212?
I think Congressman Markey should take Congressman Turner up on the offer to visit Oak Ridge; if there is a case to be made, it should be made to the skeptics. And while he’s in town, Markey or his staff should meet with OREPA and tell us what he saw—nothing classified, just some specifics about the conditions. There is no doubt Building 9212 is old and in need of repairs; there is also no doubt that it has undergone extensive upgrading in the last decade. In 2008, DOE/NNSA said they could bring it up to current environmental, safety and health standards for less than $200 million; since then, they’ve spent about half that.
The point is: The nation’s need for production capacity is declining rapidly, and that trajectory reflects our national policy and our national interest. When Congress decides the path forward for Oak Ridge, it should reflect what the nation needs. That means focusing on dismantlement, not Supersized, Superpriced facilities.