OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (AP) — The Department of Energy has approved designing a new uranium processing center at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee, carrying a potential price tag of up to $3.5 billion.
The facility would ''replace the heart of the Y-12 manufacturing complex,'' said Steve Wyatt, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration on Wednesday.
The project will have to pass several more review hurdles before it can be built and may not be ready until 2018.
But the start of design work offers the potential for what could be the largest construction project at the weapons plant in decades and the most significant step yet in upgrading an installation born in World War II's Manhattan Project.
The proposed uranium processing facility would replace Y-12's main production area for nuclear warhead parts. It would consolidate operations from 60-year-old facilities with outdated equipment into a new facility, Wyatt said.
''This new facility will have enhanced facility safety and worker health features designed into the facility and (its) processes,'' he said in a statement.
The center would be located next to a fortress-like uranium storehouse now under construction and due to open in 2009-10 in the most closely guarded section of the high-security complex.
The 4,600-employee Y-12 installation is the nation's primary storehouse for weapons-grade uranium and the key producer of uranium parts used in every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
The price on the uranium warehouse has escalated from $120 million to $549 million since 2001. The same is true for the processing center — the high end of the tab mentioned Wednesday is triple earlier reports.
Wyatt said the cost range now is $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion, including ''significant consideration for 'unknowns' and risk.'' A harder estimate will be developed as part of the preliminary design work, probably by 2010.
Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell gave Y-12 ''verbal approval'' to proceed with the design work following a July 25 briefing by a team of Y-12 managers and contractors to senior officials at DOE headquarters in Washington, Wyatt said.
''A formal letter authorizing this approval is anticipated,'' he said.