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Uranium Processing

This text was presented to attendees at a workshop July 24, 2014 at the Veterans For Peace National Convention at the University of North Carolina , Asheville.


My name is Robert Howarth, I have a Master of Science degree in Engineering, am now retired after 37 years in the field of electro-optics and am a member of WNCPSR , the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.

I’m going to tell a story :
Last Dec.10, 2013 Dr. Terry Clark & I drove to Knoxville, TN to attend a daylong hearing held by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board . The safety & security of the proposed UPF intended for Oak Ridge, TN was on the agenda. The Board asked pertinent questions of contractor officials; time for comments/testimonies was then allowed for other interested parties. Dr. Clark and I both presented our statements to the Board.

The hearing was well moderated . Of great interest to us was the squirming by many of the contractors as they lamely responded to questions posed by the Board members.  This served as stimulus for our PSR chapter to initiate our ongoing “OREPA Support Project”.  OREPA, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, is a 25 year veteran of efforts to banish nuclear weapons. Our support efforts include fund raising, public information programs, feature articles and letters to the editor. We feel that our efforts have helped to scuttle the Uranium Processing Facility - - a victory for sure, but our work to raise public awareness must continue , as you will see.


What is UPF?

The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) was first proposed as a multipurpose facility to manufacture thermonuclear weapon components, to process enriched uranium for other uses, and to dismantle retired nuclear warheads. This would be located at the Oak Ridge Y12 Nuclear Complex  in Tennessee.  In 2008 the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said a new UPF was ”essential to its ability to meet national security requirements regarding the nation’s nuclear deterrent” and “needed for NNSA to maintain its basic weapons capabilities”.

UPF History:

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has spent over $1 B attempting to build a massive new nuclear weapon production facility, the Uranium
Processing Facility.     Most of that money is now written off as wasted.

In 2005 NNSA had estimated cost at $600 million to $1.5 billion and a completion date in 2018.  The first design cost $500M - - -  it was discarded when designers noticed it was not big enough to house the desired contents.  Another half billion was spent on the second design - - it was discarded after cost estimates continued to rise. 

In 2011 NNSA released its Record of Decision upon completion of the Y12 Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement. It decided to build a big bomb plant - capable of producing 80 nuclear weapon secondaries and cases a year - - - at  Y12 Oak Ridge..  It asserted that all environmental issues would be addressed, regulatory standards would be met and worker and public safety would be assured.  From that point on NNSA struggled to meet the requirements it had set.  It resisted the advice of DNFSB (Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board) about seismic and safety requirements. After vetting by several Federal agencies the estimated cost rose to $6.5 B, then to $9B, then $11B and  finally in early 2014 to $19B. Significant disagreements had surfaced regarding safety, security, & building subterranean vs. above ground.   All of these contributed to more cost and delay.

Justification/Why build this Uranium Processing Facility?

Supporters contend:
*  U.S. needs more capability for producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use in submarines, missile silos, and other weapons
*  Existing facilities are nearing their end of useful, safe life
*  Must modernize weapons via new Life Extension Program (LEP)
*  Modernize existing dismantlement facilities to alleviate a 15 year backlog

Does it fit U.S. Policy Commitments?

Relevant factors:
*  “Build Down” - U.S. & 96 signatory nations are committed to reduce nuclear weapons towards eventual elimination
*  Start II continues nuclear weapons reductions from 2010 to 2017.
*  U.S. has 4,650 nuclear warheads on hand + 3,000 in storage; these are deemed functional for another 50 - 100 years.  
*  U.S. participation in a B61 Bomb Life Extension Program is criticized as a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
*  Europeans don’t want to continue B61 Bomb deployment in their countries

Questions waiting for answers:

*  Why would we continue & even increase spending for additional nuclear weapons capability for more than the next century?
*  What message does this send to other countries?
*  What message does this send to U,S citizen-taxpayers who pay for this?
*  Do we want to lead in the perpetuation of worldwide nuclear devastation threat?

Investment in UPF, Benefits, Losers:

U.S. taxpayers have invested billions of dollars in nuclear weapons development, testing, and deployment over the past 75 years.  The $19 B for UPF would add to that bill. Would continued expenditures like this increase our security and help make the world a safer, healthier environment?

Do we even need a UPF?
The short direct answer is NO, we don‘t !

We in the U.S. already have an excess of deterrence power, an excess of kill & destroy power and a huge arsenal & stockpile usable for the next century.  The primary beneficiaries of our 75 years of nuclear investment are the contractors and suppliers that profit handsomely from it.  The losers for most of this period are U.S. taxpayers, even those employed through it --- they too and their families experience health threats from their proximity to nuclear materials.

How else could we invest $19 B?  Well, we do have a large national debt; we do have an infrastructure of roads, bridges, railways, water & sewer systems crumbling about us.  We do have health care and social safety net needs, education needs and underpaid teachers - - - yes, we could we could well invest $19 B for some real needs.

What about jobs lost?  It is no secret that funds invested in civilian oriented needs yield 3 to 7 times more jobs that an equal amount invested in military oriented needs - - -  rather than job loss, we would have job gain.  More workers will be needed by tackling the aforementioned infrastructure deficiencies as well as additional weatherization programs and by the fast growing alternative energy producers such as solar, wind, and  geothermal.

UPF Current Status:

At the request of Congress the NNSA and its Technology Development System results were reviewed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) . In its April 2014 quarterly report GAO severely criticized NNSA for management deficiencies, for quadrupling of cost estimates and for receding project completion schedules for every major construction project it has undertaken since it was formed in 2000.

The proposed UPF is stalled, is in limbo.  However, a Plan C, drafted in secret by a special “Red Team” appointed by NNSA in early 2014, is under review.  On the ground at Oak Ridge they are already implementing some of the recommendations in the report.  These are extensive upgrades to existing facilities and construction of a stripped down version of the UPF for operations that can’t be housed elsewhere. Red Team’s cost estimates for upgrades are in the tens of millions of dollars; their guess for other parts of its proposed plan is $6.5 billion, Target Completion Date is 2025.


The U.S. already has the world’s largest nuclear deterrent. As previously pointed out by Steve Gilman only 100 nuclear bombs in a limited war could destroy ¼ - 1/3 of the world’s population and destabilize much of the world’s food production for 10 years.  Safe to say that no sane persons/country wants to use nuclear weapons to inflict or risk such horror.

The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) in their May 2014 report Billion Dollar Boondoggles (P.14) points out that contractors should be held to concrete performance benchmarks, unnecessary red tape should be cut when possible, but federal oversight should be stronger, not weaker.  The dramatic security breach at the Y12 National Security /complex in Oak Ridge, TN by 3 senior age peace activists, one a nun, in July 2012 underscores the importance of that recommendation.  The report also calls for termination of the dual roles of lab directors that serve simultaneously as presidents of the for-profit corporations running the labs and also have a statutory responsibility to annually certify that the U.S. Stockpile is safe and reliable. At the same time they are proposing a never ending cycle of Life Extension Programs (LEPs) that would profit their corporations, but could undermine reliability through changes made to existing nuclear weapons.  Not only does this have the appearance of conflict of interest, it seems an invitation to enable an indefinite continuation, if  not increase, in nuclear weapons production, modifications and additional testing. This would lead to institutionalizing the world’s largest nuclear weapons program  - - perhaps forever?

ANA proposes in their May 2014 report  (P.6) a curatorship role for U.S. nuclear weapons future as the way to preserve the safety & reliability of existing nuclear warheads.  We believe this to be more conservative than and superior to the Department of Energy‘s (DOE) Stockpile Stewardship Program.  Curatorship does not permit “extending service life of weapons by adding novel capabilities and new military uses for them“ as does DOE‘s proposal.  Curatorship will preserve a safer, more reliable arsenal and save taxpayers billions of dollars.  Forgoing novel designs and features is more consistent with our real obligations and more supportive of our global nonproliferation commitments than the current program.


At present The U.S. has 4,650 ready nuclear warheads -- we need to build down, not up!

The good news is that the proposed $19 billion Uranium Processing Facility has been scuttled.  The bad news is that elements of the Red Team’s recommendations are already being implemented even though the Department of Energy has yet to announce any course corrections more in line with U.S. treaty commitments  and the wishes of 73% of the world‘s population to ban nuclear weapons.

In summary , the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability membership along with many supporting citizens have been successful in stopping the $19 Billion  Boondogggle.

Citizen voice has been effective and must continue and grow to help shape U.S. nuclear policy. Congress must hear more on this from U.S. taxpayers.

Thank you.

Mission Statement

PREVENTING WHAT WE CANNOT CURE: Physicians for Social Responsibility is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment.