Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: Keeping Government Construction Projects on Time and on Budget

Posted on March 30, 2015

   Governing is about setting priorities, and a good example of that is the Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12, in East Tennessee. One of my priorities has been keeping large government construction projects on time and on budget, including the Uranium Processing Facility. Every time we would get a status update on the project costs were increasing.  We began holding regular meetings with the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, three years ago to try to solve the problem. 

   Now, after years of oversight by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development, which I now chair, we have an agreement: Construction of the Uranium Processing Facility’s uranium buildings isn’t supposed to begin until the buildings are at 90 percent design, the cost isn’t supposed to exceed $6.5 billion, and the project needs to be completed by 2025.

   This was a topic at a March 11 hearing I chaired on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s 2016 budget, one of four budget hearings our subcommittee held on the president’s budget proposal. Over the past two months we also held hearings on budget proposals for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, just this week, the U.S. Department of Energy.

   One of my priorities has been keeping large government construction projects on time and on budget, including the Uranium Processing Facility. Three years ago, we began holding regular meetings with the National Nuclear Security Agency, or NNSA.

   We said we wanted 90 percent design completed before we began construction and urged the NNSA to take aggressive steps to get costs under control.

   The NNSA administrator asked Dr. Thom Mason, the laboratory director for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, to head a Red Team to review the project. The result of that review may be a model for how to keep these kinds of projects on time and on budget.

   The Red Team's report included 17 recommendations, nearly all of which the NNSA has now adopted, to keep the Uranium Facility within a $6.5 billion budget and completed by 2025.

   Based on these recommendations, the Uranium Processing Facility will now consist of at least two buildings − one with high security and one with less security − with construction of these buildings to begin once their design is at 90 percent. 

   NNSA recently completed a portion of the site preparation for this project under budget by $10 million.  That’s a good start, but there’s a lot more work to be done. 

   Though there seems to be clear accountability now, it is crucial that we maintain this accountability throughout this entire construction process and on future projects. We need to make sure someone is responsible for meeting the goals we have set.

   It’s time that we do what we were sent here to do – to govern. 

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