Three months later, still no answers.
It’s one thing for the National Nuclear Security Administration to stonewall the public and the media when we ask questions—we’ve gotten used to it. But surely the NNSA has to answer to someone. That someone (since Tennessee’s Congressional delegation shrugs off questions about public safety and fiscal responsibility) is the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, established to provide oversight on safety issues at nuclear facilities.
When the NNSA faced the DNFSB last October at a public hearing in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Safety Board had questions about the NNSA’s design of the $7.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility proposed for the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. (The UPF will manufacture thermonuclear secondaries and cases for US nuclear warheads.)
At several points in the public hearing, NNSA and B&W Y12 officials took questions from the Safety Board “for the record.” More than once, they promised answers in “twenty-one days” or “three weeks.” DNFSB said the record would be held open for one month, until November 2. That deadline was extended to January 2, 2013, and now it’s been extended again, to January 16, to “further accommodate submission of answers to questions taken for the record during the course of the public hearing.”
The questions that weren’t answered at the public hearing fell into two broad categories: 1] What went wrong? and 2] How will you fix it?
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance took advantage of the extension of the comment period announced last week to write to the Safety Board urging them to persist in their questions and to expand the scope of their questioning to address the overall question of NNSA management capacity with regard to the Y12 Complex.
The failure of NNSA to provide answers as promised—and who knows when, if ever, we will get the answers—raises an additional question: Is it that they can’t answer, or that they won’t answer? Either way, the failure to provide answers does little to assuage critics, growing in number, who question whether NNSA has the competence to manage the nuclear weapons complex and major projects like the UPF.
It’s no secret that NNSA would prefer to operate without the hassle of oversight; Representative Mike Turner has tried to advance legislation that would relieve NNSA of the burden of oversight from the DNFSB. Turner faces an uphill battle, though, because the NNSA consistently and almost without exception continues to demonstrate it simply cannot manage its affairs or its contractors competently, whether the subject is security, safety, or just project management. The General Accounting Office has repeatedly noted this, and reports from the Department of Energy’s Office of Health, Safety and Security, the DOE Inspector General and the Safety Board provide ample evidence to back up the GAO.
Why does it matter? Several reasons:
• The NNSA is wasting billions of tax dollars on ill-advised projects that have two things in common across the complex: they are over budget and hemorrhaging money, and they repeatedly fail to meet their schedules. The UPF is one of these.
• The rush to build the UPF has led to unresolved safety issues and an attempt to reverse-engineer safety into the design which has contributed to the “space/fit issue” which, after five years and half a billion dollars spent on design, has required a re-design of the facility.
• The safety concerns raised by DNFSB, yet to be resolved, are not inconsequential. The Safety Board is not known for crying wolf or waving red flags casually, so when they wrote in April 2012 that UPF design safety decisions were not protective of workers or the public, it was worth noting. At the public hearing in October, the public expected reassuring answers; instead, we got the space/fit issue and apparent management chaos. No one could answer the first question: How did this happen?
• The insistence of the Safety Board that the UPF be designed according to DOE’s own safety standards, the need to spend massive amounts of money overbudgeted by Congress, the demands placed on the UPF project by the changes in the new management contract, the urgency (real or manufactured) to get out of older, deteriorating facilities (Building 9212), and the pressure to meet production goals for the Life Extension Program create the perfect storm—with the very real potential for the catastrophic outcome that implies.
OREPA believes it is past time for a reality check. Congress should demand rock solid answers to at least two questions before another dime is appropriated for the UPF:
1. Why is this facility so oversized/overpriced (designed to have a production capacity of 80 warheads/year when NNSA says it can meet its mission requirements with a capacity of 5-10 warheads/year) when money is so tight?
2. What, if anything, is required to fix a management culture that has so totally and expensively screwed up the UPF project?
If the NNSA ever does answer the Safety Board, we may get some clues to the answers to these critical questions—but it will be up to Congress to ask the really hard questions about the supersized, superpriced UPF.
Without substantive answers, those of us who live in the shadow of the weapons plants in Oak Ridge should realize it is not just workers who bear an increased risk—we are at risk as well, and our government, the NNSA, is refusing to talk with us about it. Safety decisions being made today in Oak Ridge and Washington, DC, will color our future for decades to come.
Here are some of the unanswered questions raised at the October hearing in Knoxville:
What was the root cause of the space/fit issue? (Dept has not yet conducted investigation)
What is the timeline for space/fit resolution with contractor? (Have it by mid-October)
Are you confident you can control risks moving forward—risk of having to remove other processes? (Yes, we will better understand “going forward” by next quarter; we’ll be more informed in 90 days)
DNFSB asks NNSA to respond “for the record:” What markers will be used to evaluate safety in ongoing operations (Building 9215 and other now-deferred-scope buildings)?
Question about safety of Saltless Direct Oxide Reduction technology. DNFSB’s Mr. Bader said “Concerns have been expressed to me,” and asked for further information for the record—information related to the safe operation of the system.
DNFSB Winokur: Where are you right now with the design completion? 90%?
NNSA Eschenberg: I’ll take that question for the record. We’ll be better informed in 20 days, better able to know if we’ll get to CD/2 by September 2013.
In questioning B&W Y12 management, DNFSB faced similar gaps. Asking about when the space/fit issue was discovered, noting the project said “6 months ago” that it would be at 90% in September, DNFSB asked, “Help me understand.” B&W answer: “At 70% completion we recognized the space/fit issue. Now we have to step backwards. We won’t know how far back until three weeks. We’ll report back then.”
DNFSB pushed on the plan to incorporate safety into the design when a significant part of the design was being deferred. B&W said they would design the deferred scope to 60-70% completion. DNFSB said “So you’ll have to figure out how to design safety for solutions you don’t know yet…” Answer: “It’s not as bad as it sounds. When we do our PDSA for CD/3 before we begin construction…I do believe we know where we are headed.” DNFSB: When will we know? Answer: In 3 weeks, we’ll know better.”
for more information:
Ralph Hutchison , OREPA Coordinator
865 776 5050