OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (Feb. 24, 2021) – Due to the recent concerns expressed by the community, contract workers at Y-12, and residents of Oak Ridge, City officials met with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) this week to more learn more about the department’s plan to contract with Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) of Erwin, Tennessee. It would use the third-party vendor to perform uranium purification remotely from the Y-12 complex at a location 125 miles from Oak Ridge. The transfer of this function could begin with a Phase I contract announcement coming as soon as March 1, 2021.
During the briefing, NNSA officials identified their needs to develop new facilities outside of original Manhattan Project era structures on the Y-12 campus. Processes for uranium purification will be considered through a Phase I pilot-scale project contract with Nuclear Fuel Service facilities located in Erwin, Tennessee.
Despite the additional information provided in the briefing, the City still cannot support this proposed move. City Council members continue to express concern for the performance of this work for an initial 3-year period noting that if continued, this process may be utilized for the remainder of a ten-year period.
“I reiterated to NNSA that signing this important national security contract is unsettling as it is being done in the middle of a change to a new Administration, before a new Secretary of Energy is on board and a new Y-12 contractor is selected,” said Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch. “The NNSA will remove this work from Oak Ridge at a time when new, taxpayer-funded facilities are being constructed at Y-12 to an offsite location with a non-proven production process that is not fully developed.”
The proposed move doesn’t justify the economic impacts on the local and federal economy, including the displacement of jobs.
“Safety and security will change from NNSA to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I continue to state that NNSA’s push to move the work outside the Oak Ridge region is extremely concerning given the need for work conducted by a highly-skilled, trained workforce in modernized secure facilities,” Gooch said.
Councilwoman Ellen Smith, who also attended that briefing, said: “Details of this work are classified, of course, but it is my understanding that chemical refining of uranium has long been one of the important functions of Y-12, and that this is an acitivity with inherent safety concerns due to the characteristics of the materials and the nature of the processes. Exceptionally high levels of security and physical protection are in place at Y-12 to safeguard highly enriched uranium, and Y-12 has a highly specialized trained workforce that is dedicated to safely and successfully performing Y-12’s critical national defense missions. At this time, when the United States is spending several billion dollars modernizing the uranium processing capabilties at Y-12, it seems difficult to justify a decision to move work to another site where it would become necessary to replicate the physical safeguards and safety features that the new Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 has been designed to provide.”
Smith also said: “By transferring this work to a private-sector facility in a different city, NNSA may hope to be able to pass off some of its responsibility for safeguarding its weapons-grade uranium to a third party, and perhaps also escape the level of safety-related scrutiny that its activities at Y-12 receive from the public and from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.”
Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) processing and storage has been performed at the Y-12 National Security Complex for decades. This contract would divert a significant process at significant estimated expenses to an area outside of the highly-secured Y-12 environment used for uranium purification.
Earlier, an NNSA statement said: “Pending the results of the Phase 1, NNSA will determine if a Phase 2 contract will be awarded for Highly Enriched Uranium processing. If Phase 2 is pursued, NFS will provide uranium purification and conversion services during the ‘bridge’ period until Y-12 begins its production phase.”
The City of Oak Ridge has previously pointed to the logistics and costs that would be required to provide safe and secure mobile transfers of the weapons-related materials to/from an off-site facility.
The briefing was timely due to the forthcoming announcement, about which the City was originally advised on November 25, 2020, when NNSA informed Oak Ridge community leaders that the agency indented to issue a sole-source contract to NFS.
Tennessee Congressman Chuck Fleischmann has been asked to monitor this move during transition of presidential administrations, the appointment of a new NNSA Administrator, and the selection of a new contractor for Y-12.