Costs for new nuclear facility skyrocket as critics question its creation

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Plans for a new facility that will handle, dismantle and secure nuclear material are in a major meltdown.

The price tag attached to the country’s largest uranium processing facility under the direction of the Department of Energy has climbed to more than 19 times its original estimate. What’s worse is that much of the Tennessee complex, according to the government’s own calculations, isn’t needed and the rest will most likely be outdated when the facility becomes fully operational -- two decades from now.

The project was first estimated to cost around $600 million, but that has since climbed to as high as $11.6 billion – and is likely to go even higher, Lydia Dennett, a research associate at the Project on Government Oversight, told

“The cost has jumped dramatically, but there’s also been a huge delay in the operational date,” Dennett said.

Originally, the facility was supposed to be up and running by 2018, but that’s been pushed back to 2038.

POGO, a non-partisan watchdog group, blames poor project management and a design flaw for the serious cost overruns the National Nuclear Security Administration is now facing on this project. Among the problems, the team has to redesign the roof because its original height would have been too low to fit containers and equipment. Project managers also have to rebuild the walls to make them thicker.

According to the POGO report, “early estimates, which showed the need for a higher cost range, were apparently disregarded to gain approval to proceed with the project.”

Under the original 2005 proposal, the manufacturing plant at the nuclear weapons compound at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oakridge, Tenn., would make uranium cores for the country’s stockpile of hydrogen bombs.

Since then, a growing group of experts, including the former chairman of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force, have questioned the need for the facility and say by the time it’s fully operational, the nuclear facility’s core mission will be obsolete.

The project was originally projected, back in 2005, to cost as little as $600 million. The Department of Energy has since said it could cost up to $6.5 billion. But the Army Corps of Engineers in 2011 estimated the eventual price could be up to $11.6 billion.

Cost aside, Dennett says the proposed Y-12 plan doesn’t do much to actually secure the nuclear material being handled at the site. The NNSA is pushing an above-ground design that POGO believes will make it “significantly more difficult to secure” and will also cost much more and take longer to construct.

Presently, Y-12 employs 5,000 people, works with an additional 2,000 subcontractors, and is a major contributor to the local Oak Ridge economy, located in eastern Tennessee.

The complex that now houses big brick structures at Y-12 were built during World War II. Those buildings, by almost all accounts, are in need of major repair.

But POGO argues that the nuclear work doesn’t need to be done in a new pricey facility.

“There is significant evidence to suggest that some aspects of the UPF mission can be carried out at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and with a few modifications and refurbishments, at existing facilities at Y-12,” the report states.

New America Foundation’s William Hartung says the current price tag of the facility – already billions of dollars over-budget – could soar even higher.

“Costs of the NNSA’s modernization plan are hard to predict because of the agency’s consistent record of large cost overruns on major projects,” Hartung said. “According to a recent assessment by the Government Accountability Office, six NNSA projects initiated during the past decade had cumulative cost overruns of $5.6 billion.”

Calls to representatives for Y-12 and the Department of Energy for comment were not returned.