Before we break out the champagne, we should ask serious questions because budgets are more than just numbers on a page. They also tell us about priorities.
In an op-ed on Feb. 7, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the head of National Nuclear Security Administration, made her argument for the new Trump Administration’s Fiscal Year2021 budget request (“Modernizing our nuclear enterprise infrastructure to keep Americans safe”). In it she reminds us of the billions of dollars being spent here on nuclear weapons projects and celebrates the whopping 20% proposed increase for the NNSA system, including in Oak Ridge.
Is this good news? Before we break out the champagne, we should ask serious questions because budgets are more than just numbers on a page. They also tell us about priorities.
The proposed budget will prioritize spending for the Uranium Processing Facility bomb plant at Y-12. To pay for it, hundreds of millions of dollars will be slashed from the cleanup budget across the weapons complex, including in Oak Ridge.
This past summer, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board released a report that declared Y-12′s Criticality Safety Program broken. The Safety Board’s concerns go back more than 10 years, and weekly reports since July continue to highlight criticality safety shortcomings at Y-12. Why? Because of funding decisions — and a lax safety culture.
The same attitude can be seen in NNSA’s current plan for Y-12, which includes using two old facilities, Building 9215 and 9204-2E, for dangerous enriched uranium operations for 20 to 30 more years even though the buildings do not come close to meeting current seismic standards. Rather than spend the money to bring the facilities up to code, NNSA invoked a policy of “risk acceptance.” They just decided to accept, without asking us, significant risk on our behalf. It was a budget decision.
According to the Department of Energy’s Inspector General, the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge is also home to the top three “high-risk excess facilities” in the entire nuclear weapons complex. These are abandoned, contaminated sites that, according to the Inspector General’s report, “present an ever-increasing risk to workers and the public.” Despite Congressman Chuck Fleischmann’s efforts, the U.S. Department of Energy and NNSA have failed to fund cleanup of these facilities — they prefer to spend their money on the Uranium Processing Facility.
Billions of dollars have been spent in the last 10 years on the Uranium Processing Facility bomb plant at Y-12. Is that spending reflected in a better quality of life in Oak Ridge, Anderson or Roane counties? Or has the money been siphoned off to the corporate headquarters of Bechtel and Lockheed?
Before readers take Gordon-Hagerty’s words at face value, they should know the Government Accountability Office has listed NNSA and DOE on its High-Risk List for 27 consecutive years for shortfalls in contract and project management. NNSA simply lacks the capacity to track the billions of taxpayer dollars it is spending.
In her piece, Gordon-Hagerty tries to find a silver lining saying she is “proud to say we’ve come a long way since” 2011. If I were administrator of a federal agency, I would be embarrassed, not proud, to say we still have not managed to fully staff accountability for multi-billion-dollar projects even though we’ve been working on it for a decade.
I propose an alternative. Maybe Sen. Lamar Alexander, chair of the Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Development subcommittee, can present it during the budget process. Rather than funneling money towards increased production, put it towards safety and cleanup — things that will directly benefit our community. Spend it on staff positions that will increase accountability; it’s the only way to make sure we’re getting what we’re paying for. Do the people in Oak Ridge a favor and fund the cleanup of the Alpha-5 facility at Y-12 once and for all.
As Congress debates the budget, taxpayers should demand accountability for every penny, and we who live in and around Oak Ridge should insist that health and safety should be the top spending priorities.
Ralph Hutchison is the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance coordinator.