US Nuclear Weapons Could Die Thanks To $20 Million Of Neglect

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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A nuclear facility won’t be able to produce lithium materials if improvements aren’t made thanks in part to a dangerous, deteriorating building, according to a government watchdog.

The building that houses lithium operations at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., Y-12 National Security Complex faces a nearly $20 million backlog of repairs, which contributes to a shortage of lithium material production, according to a Department of Energy inspector general report released Friday.

An isotope of lithium produced at Y-12 is “essential for the refurbishment of the nuclear weapons stockpile,” according to a July Government Accountability Office report.

“Y-12 had not effectively managed the lithium production process” and “will not have sufficient quantities of lithium to meet stockpile requirements beyond fiscal year 2017” “if no additional actions are taken,” the report said.

The more than 70-year-old lithium operations building’s staggering disrepair is a major contributor to the production shortage.

“Due to it’s age” the lithium operations building “has significant maintenance concerns,” the report says. “In particular, a large portion of the traditional lithium process produces corrosive conditions, adversely affecting the facility’s structural components and equipment and causing safety and production capability concerns.”

“Y-12 did not adequately maintain the lithium material operations facility, leading to an accumulation of about $20 million in deferred maintenance,” the report continues.

Y-12 officials switched to a new production process – called direct material manufacturing – which reduces costs and improves maintenance efficiency, but limits the amount and use of lithium materials produced.

Lithium dust, for example, can’t be reused under direct material manufacturing, unlike the historical process, which reduces production by more than 50 percent.

But the building’s neglect isn’t just affecting lithium materials production.

“Delaying necessary maintenance can affect Y-12’s ability to achieve production goals and conduct safe operations of the facility,” the report says. “For example, in March 2014, concrete weighing more than 200 pounds detached from the ceiling … Pieces weighing up to five pounds landed in an area adjacent to where operators had been working just minutes before.”

“The falling concrete damaged a portable welding exhaust unit and broke a drain pipe,” the report continues. “A Y-12 official told us that pipe had been connected to a fire suppression line, and if water had leaked and been exposed to lithium, it could have resulted in a fire.”

“Y-12 identified the concrete deterioration in February 2005 and determined that repair was needed within two years,” the report says. “However, nine years later, the task continued to be classified as deferred maintenance.”

The lithium operations building “had 223 deferred maintenance items with a total estimated cost of more than $19.4 million, the majority of which were overdue for repair by an average of six years,” the report says.

Y-12 management, did however, make changes “to ensure available supply beyond FY 2017,” the report says. “During the audit, Y-12 issued a plan that management stated would ensure safe and reliable production of lithium materials.”

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