In response to Representative Ed Markey's (D-MA) recently introduced bill that would reduce wasteful Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear spending by $100 billion over the next ten years, Representative Mike Turner (R-OH) extended an invitation to his fellow congressman to go on a vacation of sorts. Now a grassroots group is encouraging the trip, as it might shed some much needed light on how much money the U.S. actually needs to spend updating its nuclear weapons complex.
Markey’s bill, the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act, calls for the cancellation of two costly and unnecessary proposed facilities: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12). POGO agrees with Markey that cutting these multi-billion-dollar projects without a cause is a smart move. But according to Turner, Markey’s plans “do not reflect the deteriorating circumstances” of the facilities they would replace.
In a letter he sent last week, Turner invited Markey to join him on a tour of these two existing facilities—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility at LANL and Building 9212 at Y-12—which he characterized as old and “deplorable.” His letter includes photos of, among other things, electrical panels and rusty pipes at the facilities.
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) recently examined Turner’s claims about Building 9212 and concluded that a trip there would be worthwhile—and would likely show that the building could be brought up to snuff for much less than $7.5 billion, the estimated cost of the proposed replacement facility DOE says it needs. Commenting on a photo of a rusty lighting panel at Building 9212, OREPA remarked:
The unsightliness is called rust. Two options for cleaning this up—a wire brush and some paint, or a new box cover. Either one, under $1,000 including labor. Can’t get a replacement cover for a box this old? Whole new box, $300; labor, two days. This does not appear to be an industrial dust-proof application, so it probably should get an upgrade during replacement. Triple the price—I think we can still bring it in under $7.5 billion.
OREPA concedes to Turner that some components at Building 9212 are aging. And replacing them won’t be cheap, based on DOE’s poor track record of managing projects over-schedule and over-budget. Still, no matter which way you do the math, necessary updates at Building 9212 won’t add up to $7.5 billion:
The last picture is of rusting pipes in the basement of building 9212. No explanation of why the rusted valve needs to be fixed. But some observations: iron pipes rust; iron pipes in a chemical environment may rust even more. They also last 150 years or more. Valves and joints are the weak points, especially if they are not maintained. But a LOT of valves can be replaced for $7.5 billion.
So what is a realistic cost for upgrading these aging nuclear facilities? As OREPA notes, DOE said in 2008 that it could bring Building 9212 up to code for under $200 million, and it has already spent about half of that on upgrades in the past several years. In order to justify a $7.5-billion facility, the DOE has to “document rather than assert,” its needs, as OREPA puts it. And while the results might not be what Turner expects, a Turner-Markey road trip might be what we need to hold DOE accountable for its spending on nuclear facilities.
Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator.
Image via MikeOliveri.