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Uncertainty Lingers Over Push to Rework Plan for Y-12 Uranium Site

It remains unclear publicly why the United States must revamp its blueprint for a new highly enriched uranium processing center if the prospective site is to house its full range of intended nuclear material and arms activities, after development of the original proposal unfolded over years at a cost of $500 million, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported on Wednesday.

The schematics must undergo revision to guarantee that the Uranium Processing Facility operates as anticipated, the National Nuclear Security Administration and UPF federal project director John Eschenberg said last week. Several firms and hundreds of personnel aided in drafting construction details for the site, which is slated for assembly at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, according to the News Sentinel.

Government personnel have so far not isolated the "root causes" of the existing draft's failure to provide enough room for the plant's intended operations, but designers "prematurely established a hard footprint" for the site, Eschenberg said. He offered as one possible explanation the involvement of multiple teams that were involved in the project's initial steps while based in three disparate areas.

A technical review and assessment could address some areas of uncertainty, the official told the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board on Oct. 2. The paper appears set for completion in roughly two weeks, the News Sentinel reported.

There have already been concerns about the cost of the facility that would provide highly enriched uranium and operations to put together and dismantle nuclear-weapon components.

"There will be a cost impact for raising the height of the building," the planning leader said. "Today I do not know what that cost impact will be."

Still, the price would "pale in comparison" to the possible cost spike from addressing the same issues once assembly activities are under way, he said. Completing the facility is presently projected to require between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion.

Project personnel still want by next September to win Energy Department endorsement of thorough expense and timing projections for the site, but "my confidence in our ability to meet that date has been degraded, it's been eroded," Eschenberg said.

A number of steps to clear the intended construction site are still anticipated to move forward, the official noted.

"There is a great body of knowledge that we have already in place," he added. "The design of the structure is actually quite far along."

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Wednesday voiced backing for the blueprint revision, the newspaper reported.

"I wish we didn't have to have a redesign, but I'd much rather have a redesign before we start (construction) than to tear the building down after we start because we made a mistake," the lawmaker said. "My opinion about it is I don't want them to start building it until they've got it properly designed."

"They're trying to design a building that's supposed to last 50 or 75 years," he added. "There's no other uranium processing (facility) in the world like it. It's a very complex, difficult enterprise. It would have been much better if their first try worked. But it didn't. And I want them to design as efficiently as they can ... I'm hopeful they can get to 90 percent design (completed) by September 2013. But if they're not there, I don't want them to start building."

Eschenberg and additional personnel are providing planning updates each month to Alexander and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Republican lawmaker said. Alexander and Feinstein respectively hold the No. 2 and No. 1 positions on the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.

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