Thank you, Teresa [Teresa Robbins, Manager of the National Production Office], for that kind introduction.
Good morning, everyone! It is a pleasure to be here today at the Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit. I would like to thank the Summit organizers for inviting me to speak today as well as the Tennessee Valley Corridor Organization, and all of you for your interest in our work and your support for our presence in the Tennessee Valley region.
My comments today will touch on NNSA’s mission, some of the challenges and opportunities we currently face as an organization in meeting that mission, how our work at Y-12 National Security Site and collaboration with partners throughout the Tennessee Valley Corridor contributes to achieving our goals, and some of our ongoing and upcoming projects to improve and expand on that work both now and in the future.
It really is hard to overstate the impact the Tennessee Valley has on our work and the role it plays in the history of our nuclear security enterprise. After all, some of the earliest and most important research for the Manhattan Project took place at sites that eventually became Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex. Today, these sites remain critically important to meeting the challenges NNSA faces and achieving our objectives.
Today, we face mission requirements as difficult as any in our history. NNSA remains committed to our core objectives of providing and maintaining a safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear deterrent to serve as the cornerstone of our national defense; reducing global nuclear threats through robust nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism programs; and providing the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers with militarily effective propulsion systems to maintain our nation’s qualitative edge in naval warfare.
And those are big jobs. We are executing our largest weapons modernization program since the 1980s, consisting of five warhead life extension and modernization programs, while simultaneously replacing aging infrastructure. We are developing our workforce to build the flexibility and resiliency needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
This is all taking place against the backdrop of a significantly more volatile international environment. Russia and China are in the middle of substantially expanding and modernizing their nuclear arsenals, North Korea continues to pursue improvements to its warhead and missile capabilities, and we have seen greater interest by states in nascent nuclear capabilities.
Additionally, rapidly evolving technology has the potential to significantly lower the barrier to proliferation, there is a renewed focus on nuclear power in the international community as a means of combatting climate change, and we are seeing a number of growing threats in the chemical, biological, space, and cyber domains.
In short, we are facing expanded mission requirements and greater pressure to meet our objectives at a faster pace. Doing so requires us to be both responsive and responsible. We must modernize our stockpile and rebuild our infrastructure to be responsive to the threat environment. But we must also pursue the arms control, nonproliferation and counter-terrorism efforts that are the responsibility of any nuclear power – while refusing to indulge in the bellicose and destabilizing rhetoric of our competitors.
Those challenges are significant, but they also present an opportunity to transform how we do business. Our philosophy is innovate, collaborate, deliver. We innovate to create new solutions and approaches to a range of national security challenges. We collaborate with a wide array of partners to maximize impact and bolster mission success. And we deliver our unique products and infrastructure to address an evolving threat environment. Our work in the Tennessee Valley highlights some of the best examples of all three of these aims.
One of the greatest challenges, and opportunities, facing NNSA is our infrastructure. It is the foundation of our enterprise, not only providing the capabilities for us to meet our weapons modernization goals but also demonstrating NNSA’s science, technology, research, and engineering programs that attract a top-tier, highly specialized workforce and bolster our science-based stockpile stewardship efforts. Unfortunately, our present infrastructure assets are incapable of meeting our present needs and are inadequate for future mission requirements. Almost 60 percent of NNSA facilities are beyond their 40-year life expectancy with some of the facilities dating back to the Manhattan Project. We cannot continue along that trajectory. A well-organized, well-maintained, and modern infrastructure system is the key to building a resilient and flexible nuclear enterprise.
Fortunately, we are making significant investments in this area with generous, bipartisan support from our partners in Congress while also taking novel approaches to construction and acquisition aimed at increasing efficiency while lowering costs. Our fiscal year 2023 budget request calls for about $5B in capital construction projects and another $2.6B in infrastructure investments.
A significant amount of that work is taking place at Y-12. In many ways, Y-12 serves as the prime example of our need to engage in an aggressive infrastructure modernization program. As I mentioned earlier, some of the earliest work on the Manhattan Project took place at the site and many of those original facilities are still in use over 75 years later, often for critical purposes. Other capabilities that were once an integral part of Y-12’s mission have been severely degraded or lost since the end of the Cold War.
For example, NNSA recently initiated a Depleted Uranium Modernization Program to reestablish certain alloying and component manufacturing capabilities for the production of radiation cases at Y-12 while investing in new technologies to improve efficiency, reliability, and capacity, all while reducing costs. The equipment at Y-12 used in this process has been inoperable for the last 15 years and bringing it back is a critical part of our weapons modernization program.
NNSA’s lithium strategy is also focused on Y-12. Lithium is a key component for nuclear weapons systems and to meet expanded demand we are engaged in the process of establishing a Lithium Processing Facility. This new facility will replace functions currently performed at an aging facility that presents significant infrastructure and safety challenges to our operations. A new facility will alleviate those issues while providing expanded capacity to meet increased demand. We are currently on track to begin site preparation next year and are looking to complete construction and establish full capability at the site by 2031.
Of course, our largest infrastructure project by far at Y-12 is the Uranium Processing Facility, or UPF. This is one of our enterprise’s largest projects in decades. During peak construction in the next couple of years, over three thousand people will be actively working on the site. UPF will replace facilities that are 75 years old, providing long-term viability and resiliency for our enriched uranium processing capability while dramatically improving worker and public safety. We will provide new floor space for high hazard operations and introduce new processes to increase efficiency in the facility. UPF is made up of seven subprojects, three of which are already complete with the final four underway. We reached a major milestone this April with the full enclosure of the facility, setting the stage for additional equipment installation and a completion date in 2026. I was just touring UPF last week with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We were both impressed with the progress at that facility and the engineering challenges and successes in putting specialized equipment in the facility. It is a busy place right now.
We are also investing in infrastructure outside the Y-12 Complex. Last December, NNSA finished the acquisition process for the LeMond Carbon Facility in Oak Ridge. Utilizing a novel approach with an option to purchase agreement, we were able to obtain infrastructure on a faster timeline than building. The acquisition of the LeMond facility is an important step forward in providing our workforce with modern laboratory space and equipment, providing both the flexibility for changing mission requirements and the ability to attract and retain highly skilled scientists and engineers.
I also want to take the time to highlight some of the important nonproliferation and counterterrorism work that takes place in the region. In an increasingly aggressive and volatile geopolitical environment, reducing nuclear risks through the disposal of weapons-grade material, implementing robust security measures, and conducting best-practice trainings increases our security and serves as an essential complement to our nuclear deterrent.
For example, at Y-12 we carry out significant downblending work to reduce the excess domestic supply of highly enriched uranium. Together with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Blended Low Enriched Uranium Program, weapons grade material is downblended to low-enriched uranium to be sold for commercial reactor fuel. This allows Y-12 and other sites to store less material; cuts costs through lower storage, security, and disposal needs; and reduces stockpiles of fissile material. Y-12 also carries out important work in the disposition of weapons-grade material globally in partnership with NNSA’s Office of Nuclear Material Removal. Last month, President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida announced the successful removal of 30 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from three sites in Japan for downblending and disposal in the United States, permanently eliminating the possibility it could be used in an improvised nuclear device. That downblending will occur at Y-12 and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. NNSA’s work in disposing of surplus nuclear material is one of our most important nonproliferation activities and fundamentally makes the world a safer place. Since 1996, the Office of Nuclear Material Removal has removed and disposed of nearly 7,270 kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material; enough to produce about 325 nuclear weapons. A significant portion of that work has been carried out at Y-12.
Counterterrorism activities and trainings are also a substantial piece of our work and investment in the region. For example, last October we broke ground on the Oak Ridge Enhanced Technology and Training Center; a joint federal and state funded project aimed at providing first responder training and technology demonstrations. Once the center is up and running, it will house the Simulated Nuclear and Radiological Activities Facility, which will offer training for those responsible for protecting nuclear and radiological materials on how to incorporate the latest nuclear security, detection, and nonproliferation technologies. The Center will also include Tennessee’s Emergency Response Training Facility to provide first-responder training for state and local personnel. We expect to officially open the facility sometime next year.
I think all these projects demonstrate two things. First, that the Tennessee Valley region serves as a major hub for multiple key programs that enable us to serve the American people. The work we do at Y-12, in concert with our regional partners, affects everything from our weapons modernization and stockpile sustainment activities to our nonproliferation objectives. Second, it shows that we are committed to increasing our investment in the region to support the nuclear security enterprise’s expanded mission for decades to come.
Speaking of investments, I also want to touch on workforce development. If our infrastructure is the bedrock of the nuclear security enterprise, our workforce is what truly allows us to succeed. All the lab equipment and advanced manufacturing capabilities in the world would be useless without a highly trained, top-tier workforce committed to our mission. NNSA also faces significant challenges on this front; at a time when we need to expand our workforce to keep pace with an accelerated and expanded mission, we face rising attrition rates and private sector competition.
Let’s begin with attrition. Right now, about 16 percent of NNSA’s federal employees are eligible to retire, a number that is expected to grow to around 36 percent by mid-decade. Additionally, NNSA has recently experienced higher than average yearly attrition rates of around 10 percent. The departure of experienced, senior staff, some of whom have held multiple positions across the Enterprise and have decades of experience, means a loss of institutional memory, technical skills, and leadership ability. Meanwhile, the loss of junior staff is a missed opportunity to invest in and retain an employee who could have contributed to NNSA for decades to come. In highly specialized work like ours, neither of these outcomes is acceptable for the long-term health of our organization.
Competition is another serious matter. We need the top minds nationwide in science, engineering, program and project management, and foreign affairs. We draw from a limited pool of applicants that many private sector companies are also looking to draw from.
One of the key tools we have in combating these trends and recruiting and retaining high-quality talent is to start young. That’s why I’m proud of the historic investment we have made in our Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program and Tribal Education Partnership Program. These programs target collaborations between minority and tribal serving institutions and the Nuclear Security Enterprise that provide resources and outreach to students. This fosters a diverse, high-quality pipeline of candidates in engineering, scientific research, the social sciences and business. This is also an area where the Tennessee Valley Region offers significant opportunity for collaboration with the nuclear security enterprise. With top-tier schools such as Vanderbilt, Tennessee Tech, Auburn, the University of Alabama – Huntsville, and others, the Tennessee Valley has the potential to produce the exact kind of highly-motivated, highly-skilled scientists, engineers, cybersecurity experts, and others we are looking for in developing a 21st century workforce.
I want to conclude by reemphasizing that NNSA faces a mission as difficult as any in our history. But we are rising to meet the challenge. Strong, enduring partnerships with Congress, the Departments of Energy, Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Organizations like the Tennessee Valley Corridor are all critical if we are going to succeed in our mission.