Fall Quarterly 2017
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) in Tennessee, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a federal lawsuit July 20 to stop construction of the problem-plagued Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) until a legally required environmental review is completed. The UPF, located at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) Y-12 production site near Oak Ridge, is slated to produce new thermo-nuclear weapons components until the year 2080. The UPF is the tip of the spear for the US’s planned $1 trillion-plus makeover of its nuclear weapons arsenal, delivery systems, and production plants.
“The story of this new bomb factory is a long tale of outrageous waste and mismanagement, false starts and re-dos, a federal agency that refuses to meet its legal obligation to engage the public, and a US Senator bent on protecting this piece of prime nuclear pork for his home state,” said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of OREPA. “But the short version is this: when the NNSA made dramatic changes to the UPF, and admitted that it intends to continue to operate dangerous, already contaminated facilities for another 20 or 30 years, they ran afoul of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Our complaint demands that the NNSA complete a supplemental environmental impact statement on the latest iteration of its flawed plans.”
The NNSA first issued a formal “Record of Decision” to build the UPF in 2011. Within a year, the agency had to admit it had made a half-billion dollar mistake because the designed footprint of the bomb plant was not big enough to hold all of the required equipment and safety features. The US taxpayer had to eat that half billion dollars, as the NNSA held no contractor responsible. The agency’s parent organization, the Department of Energy, has been on the Government Accountability Office’s “High Risk List” for project mismanagement and chronic cost overruns for 26 consecutive years.
More recently, Congress’s 2018 Fiscal Year Energy and Water Development Appropriations report noted that the NNSA had to reprogram $403 million out of the UPF’s $1.4 billion contingency fund to address “unforeseen issues” before ground is even broken. Both the NNSA and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn., chair of Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee) have repeatedly claimed that UPF construction will not exceed $6.5 billion, but this declared budget cap seems increasingly uncertain.
In 2006, the UPF started with an estimated price tag of between $600 million to $1 billion. In December 2013 an independent cost assessment by the Pentagon raised the estimate to more than $19 billion, which stopped the project dead in its tracks and compelled NNSA to develop a new approach. The agency commissioned a quick, secret study, and its recommendations were eventually adopted. In July 2016, the NNSA published an Amended Record of Decision in the Federal Register describing its new plan.
“It was a dramatic change,” commented Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “Instead of consolidating all enriched uranium operations into one big, new UPF, NNSA decided to build multiple smaller but integrated buildings, only one of which would be designed to modern seismic standards. More importantly, the agency declared it would continue to indefinitely use deteriorating, already contaminated facilities for dangerous highly enriched uranium operations, while admitting that the buildings cannot meet current environmental and seismic standards.”
The NEPA requires federal agencies to rewrite their environmental analysis when plans for large projects undergo significant changes that might impact the environment, or when new information comes to light. NEPA also requires public involvement throughout the process. “NEPA’s fundamental purposes are to ensure that agencies take a hard look at consequences before taking action and to ensure that the public has a voice in agency decisions,” said William Lawton, an attorney working on the case at Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks, LLP. “Here, the NNSA has chosen to save money by continuing to rely on outdated, deteriorating buildings that run a very real risk of collapsing and releasing nuclear contamination in the event of an earthquake. The agency is putting the public at risk, and the public has a right to make sure that the government has taken the legally required hard look at those serious risks.”
“Since 2011, despite our repeated efforts to get information, including filing Freedom of Information Act requests, visiting DOE offices, asking officials for information and writing hundreds of letters, we have been shut out of the process completely,” noted OREPA’s Hutchison. “When we saw the final document, admitting that they were going to continue to use dangerous risky facilities without bringing them up to code, we realized why the NNSA was so determined not to make its plan public.”
Coghlan noted that the NNSA faced a similar scenario several years ago at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico when plans for a huge new plutonium pit fabrication facility were substantially changed. “We told NNSA they had to complete more public review, and the agency wisely decided to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement,” he said. “The proposed changes to the UPF are even more dramatic, and we are invoking that precedent to demand that NNSA follow the law.”