On Tuesday, October 2, 2012, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board came to Knoxville, Tennessee for a public hearing. The members of the Board sat on a raised dais, facing panels of officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration, in Round One, and B&W Y12, in Round Two. The subject was the proposed Uranium Processing Facility, a $7.5 billion thermonuclear bomb plant slated for Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say the Safety Board heard the strongest case yet for removing the NNSA from its job of managing the design and construction of the UPF. Here’s why.
After spending more than half a billion dollars and five years designing the new bomb plant, with an announced projection of reaching 90% design completion by last month, NNSA and B&W Y12 stunned the audience when they announced they are beginning a re-design of the UPF because they can’t fit all the needed equipment in the building as designed. They call it the “space/fit issue,” and some genius noticed it after the building design was more than 70% complete. The re-design will also address some outstanding safety concerns—the foundation will be thicker; interior walls will be thicker; and the roof will be raised thirteen feet to accommodate ventilation and utility systems.
That’s not all. After selling the UPF as multi-function replacement for several aging facilities at Y12, including production, disassembly and dismantlement facilities, the new UPF will not include disassembly and dismantlement operations—those will be left in older, deteriorating buildings for ten to twenty years, even though the nation’s need for dismantlement capacity will be growing dramatically and existing facilities are already overtaxed.
The timeline for beginning construction is being pushed back by the re-design. How far? No one could answer that question; they promised an answer in three weeks.
No one could explain why NNSA and B&W Y12 decided to skip the preparation of the required Preliminary Safety Design Report five years ago, no one ventured a guess at how much it is costing to retroactively integrate safety into the building design. No one offered an estimate of the added cost of the just-announced re-design, either.
The Safety Board pushed for answers at the hearing, and it got some. We learned that NNSA has not yet “staffed the full skill set” required for oversight of the UPF design project—something the Safety Board identified as a critical issue in 2007. But by the end of the year, NNSA officials promised, there would be personnel with criticality safety, chemical safety, fire protection, and structural engineering expertise on the team. That’s right, some of the most important safety skill sets you can imagine for a nuclear facility are soon, five years into the project, joining the management team.
The Safety Board also learned that NNSA and B&W Y12 hope almost all of the new technologies being planned for the UPF will reach an appropriate level of maturity before they begin building the UPF. In only one case, they testified, will they rely on “a high degree of confidence” instead of the industry standard demonstrated capacity of Technology Readiness Level 6—the minimum level of reliability necessary before a technology can be counted on. Of course, the whole reason for having a scale of Technology Readiness is so managers don’t have to rely on their best guess or their “degree of confidence,” instead, they know it will work before they design it into the facility.
The Safety Board also noted the NNSA is adding significant risk to their project by changing the management contract (combining management of Y12 in Oak Ridge with Pantex in Amarillo, TX into one contract) and putting the new contract up for bid, making it likely a new contractor will take over the UPF project in mid-stream. “Can anybody tell me of another time, any other DOE projects with contractor turnover at this stage?” asked DNFSB Chairman Peter Winokur. No one could. “It is extremely challenging what you are doing.”
Perhaps even more stunning than the announced re-design of the UPF, though, was the blithe way the NNSA team described the UPF as the world’s first $7.5 billion classroom. “We’re learning lessons,” said the project managers, explaining how they view the repeated bad decisions and failure to listen to suggestions by the Safety Board and others. When the B&W Y12 team was assembled at its table, its leader said, “We represent 180 years of experience.” Yet for all that, none of them thought to check to see if the building was big enough to fit all the equipment until they were past the 70% design completion mark. “We had a built-in contingency,” said one official. “We thought if we needed more space, we could go to a mezzanine. But we exhausted that space.”
Twice the Safety Board asked for answers to root cause questions. “Why did this happen?” asked Winokur. And later, “What was going on?”
There were no answers offered. Maybe they didn’t know; maybe they were just embarrassed.
But the answer really is not hard. The root cause is that NNSA’s culture does not require rigorous management, and its contractor oversight is ineffective at best and nonexistent most of the time. NNSA does not hold its contractor accountable because NNSA is not held accountable. The experience with the UPF so far is heading down the same track as the MOX facility at Savannah River, the NIF facility at Lawrence Livermore, and the Waste Treatment facility at Hanford. All of these are grossly over budget, have failed to fulfill their mission, and have rendered their original timelines laughable. Still, NNSA goes back to Congress and gets hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep the projects going.
The latest round of incompetence raises a serious question for Congress—is there a point beyond which you will not fund bureaucratic incompetence? If this design debacle does not make you hit the pause button, and hold up construction funding until NNSA either gets its act together — not with cosmetic personnel changes but with fundamental culture change — what will it take? A catastrophe?
Next year the NNSA turns 13 years old. The nation can not afford to have a teenager in charge of nuclear weapons—a teenager who believes it can fail and fail again with no risk of losing its allowance; a teenager who has never faced consequences and therefore doesn’t understand them; a teenager whose brain’s frontal lobes, the seat of judgment, are not yet fully developed. The analogy may seem silly at first, but upon reflection, it is strikingly apt.
Two months ago, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance called for Congress, which created the NNSA in 2000, to recognize that NNSA provides value-subtracted for the money invested in it. We were right then; we are even more right now. NNSA has got to go.
Just blowing smoke? This photo of NNSA officials testifying before the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in Knoxville, TN seems to have caught something…