Contractors Slammed for Uranium Project's Ballooning Expense

When U.S. government contractors designing a $500 million nuclear-weapon facility last year said they would have to raise the roof, they didn’t exactly mean it was time to pump up the music.

An update to plans for the future Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 national security complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., would increase its height by 13 feet -- a move required for the building to hold all its intended contents. Problem was: officials offered no stab at how much the revision would cost.

The changes ended up costing well over half a billion dollars more, congressional auditors said last Friday. The site is to replace existing facilities that handle and store highly enriched uranium.

The Government Accountability Office blamed the additional $540 million price tag on a failure by the lead design firm to “adequately manage and integrate the design work” of four subcontractors. Construction of the building itself has not begun.

The unanticipated expense contrasted with a number of “overly optimistic assumptions” made by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which has overseen the project, and laid out in a 35-page GAO report.

The project’s maximum anticipated expense soared from $1.1 billion to $6.5 billion between 2004 and 2011, and the cost might increase further because the roof revision burned through nearly half of NNSA “contingency” funds.

The nuclear weapons complex oversight agency -- a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department -- “did not account for such a large sum of money being needed to address this risk,” the auditors said in their report to the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.

The panel fears “NNSA will not be able to execute multiple, highly complex life-extension projects and construction projects concurrently under ambitious schedules,” lawmakers said in a report on spending legislation approved by the full committee in June.

The Energy Department last month informed Congress the facility will not start becoming operational until 2025, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported on Saturday.

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