Knoxville News Sentinel: Y-12 will gain from New START treaty

Alexander: New Start could help in building facilities, pension funds

Posted on December 25, 2010

OAK RIDGE - Funding commitments tied to ratification of the New START Treaty could deliver nearly $4 billion to build new facilities at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander.

In addition, Y-12 will share in a $1 billion federal infusion to help sagging pension funds at facilities in the nuclear weapons complex, Tennessee's senior senator said in statements provided to the News Sentinel following approval of the arms-reduction treaty with Russia.

"From the point of view of individual workers in the Oak Ridge area, funding this pension fund could turn out to be the most important part of the agreement," Alexander said.

Alexander and fellow Tennesseean Sen. Bob Corker were among the Republicans who joined with Democrats this week to ratify the treaty, an important foreign policy victory for the Obama administration. Both Alexander and Corker emphasized the importance of modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities before agreeing to sizable cuts in the arsenal.

Leading up to the ratification vote Wednesday, the Obama administration revised the nuclear defense planning documents and promised to support spending $85 billion in the coming decade to modernize the nation's nuclear deterrent.

"The modernization of our nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos (N.M.) and Texas needed to be done anyway," Alexander said, "but it absolutely had to be done in order to ratify a treaty that limits our number of nuclear weapons, because we need to make sure we're not left with what amounts to a collection of wet matches."

He added: "I and three other senior members of the Appropriations Committee wrote the president that we'd support the treaty and fully funding of the modernization of our nuclear facilities, and the president responded that he would ask us for enough money each year to make sure it happened."

Alexander said the leadership of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who ultimately voted against the treaty, and Corker and their work with the Obama administration "were a key part of making sure our nuclear weapons facilities will be modernized."

Corker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made trips to Y-12 and the Los Alamos and Sandia weapons labs in New Mexico to evaluate firsthand some of the outdated facilities and state the case for more funding.

The big-ticket item at Y-12 is the Uranium Processing Facility, a new production center that's projected to cost up to $6.5 billion. UPF currently is in the middesign phase, and one of the near-term priorities will be to complete that design and move into early construction and long-lead procurements for highly specialized processing equipment.

About $115 million is being spent on project development this fiscal year at Y-12, with plans to nearly double that amount in FY 2012.

UPF is supposed to replace the plant's 60-year-old 9212 production complex and other facilities that have been characterized as deteriorated, dilapidated and increasingly unsafe. It would incorporate a number of new technologies to process highly enriched uranium for replacement parts in nuclear warheads, as well as recycling the special nuclear material from dismantled weapon systems.

Project supporters say the advanced uranium capabilities are essential to national security interests, including nonproliferation projects and fueling the Navy's nuclear-powered fleet of submarines and aircraft carriers, and would be needed even if the U.S. never built another nuclear weapon.

Alexander said the classified area at Y-12 where uranium is processed for nuclear weapons will be reduced from 150 acres to 15 acres during the modernization program. Seventeen Cold War-era buildings will be torn down and replaced with a modern facility, saving money on maintenance and security, he said.

Once completed, UPF will save taxpayers $200 million annually and improve the working conditions for about 7,000 workers at Y-12, the senator said.