ICYMI: Knoxville News Sentinel: Y-12's Key Uranium Processing Facility Gets Record Funding Approval In US Defense Bill

August 7, 2023

NASHVILLE, TENN. – U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) fought to secure vital wins for Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge National Lab in the Senate-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).


Y-12's key uranium processing facility gets record funding approval in US defense bill

Daniel Dassow

Knoxville News Sentinel

The latest defense spending bill approved by the U.S. Senate affirms how important East Tennessee is to the nation's weapons development and military operations – Oak Ridge's Y-12 National Security Complex in particular.

In the House and Senate versions of the bill, representatives authorized $760 million for Y-12's under-construction Uranium Processing Facility, the largest annual sum since the project was approved by the Department of Energy in 2012. The House passed the bill July 14, followed by the Senate on July 27.

The $6.5 billion facility, one of the largest construction projects in Tennessee history, is scheduled for completion in 2025.

The funding is in the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual piece of legislation that sets the programs and projects overseen by the Departments of Defense and Energy and provides guidance on how much should be spent.  

This year's legislation authorizes a total of $886.3 billion for defense, including $505 million for construction and cleanup projects in the Oak Ridge Reservation, the 37,000 acres owned by the U.S. government in Anderson and Roane counties that include Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In addition to a 5.2% raise for service members, this year's defense package is focused on mounting tensions between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China. For U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the inclusion of Y-12 and other East Tennessee facilities in the bill joins Tennessee with efforts to toughen trade and defense policies against China, a centerpiece of her congressional career.

"Tennessee plays an incredibly impactful role in securing our nation and we see this in the research work that is being done," Blackburn told Knox News. "ORNL has such an enormous footprint in what is happening in nuclear science, cyber and materials development. They are doing significant work that is going to truly impact the next generation and for several generations to come."

Y-12 Uranium Processing Facility will modernize nation's nuclear capability

Though Y-12 ended uranium enrichment in 1946, the complex continues to process the element to refurbish nuclear weapons, fuel submarines and aircraft carriers and provide power for reactors, said Steven Wyatt, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration. 

But just because its Manhattan Project beginnings echo into the present day doesn't mean Y-12's buildings remain state-of-the-art.

The deteriorated Building 9212, with some sections dating back to 1945, is still the complex's main site for processing enriched uranium. A fire at the building in February did not cause injuries or contamination, but raised safety concerns.

As early as 2005, Y-12 began planning the building's replacement as part of broader modernization efforts by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Now, the Uranium Processing Facility is 65% complete and nearly all of its equipment has been delivered, Wyatt said. 

Wyatt said federal funding is critical to Y-12's mission and that the defense legislation sets the spending ceiling for projects like the Uranium Processing Facility. For 12 consecutive years, Congress has included the facility in the legislation, authorizing nearly $6 billion to date.

At $760 million, next year's tentative funding is set to be the most money authorized for the project and could tip the project's overall spending limit beyond its expected cost of $6.5 billion. 

Described by Y-12 as a "colossal effort," the facility's 252,000-square-foot main building will house uranium enrichment operations, and other buildings will support the facility's power and decontamination needs.

Other East Tennessee, statewide projects in the bill

In addition to the Y-12 uranium facility, the Senate's 1,200-page bill authorizes funding for several other East Tennessee and statewide defense programs, including:

  • $72 million to support cleanup and waste disposition in the Oak Ridge Reservation
  • $55 million for an ORNL facility that processes the lab's stores of U-233 left over from the Cold War into safer materials, including isotopes for cancer treatments
  • $38 million for a multi-purpose training range at Fort Campbell
  • $2.5 million for a new air traffic control tower at Fort Campbell

An additional $9 million was authorized for a classified partnership between the Air Force Research Laboratory and ORNL that will develop 3-D printing technology for aerospace parts, according to Blackburn.

How the bills are finalized

To make the legislation final, the Senate and the House must reconcile differences in the two versions, which both include the same amount of money for East Tennessee facilities.

The GOP-led House passed its bill in a 219-210 party line vote after intense debate over issues such as abortion services and transgender health care for military personnel. 

The Senate passed its bill in a 86-11 bipartisan vote that reflected a more typical path for the legislation, which has been signed into law for 62 consecutive years.

House-Senate deliberations over the legislation will begin after a congressional recess in August, and are likely to conclude with passage in December. At that point, the legislation is sent to President Joe Biden for his approval.