Originally created 01/25/03

Tritium project obtains new plan



AIKEN - A new budget and completion date were finalized this week for a Savannah River Site plant that will help maintain existing nuclear weapons.

The Tritium Extraction Facility project was plagued last year by construction-cost overruns.

The adjustments come at a $6 million contract penalty for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., which oversees daily operations at the government site.

Clay Ramsey, the director of the Tritium Extraction Facility project office, said Friday that the factors behind the overrun, which were reported in a June audit by the Department of Energy's inspector general, have been resolved.

The project was more than $100 million over budget.

"We're looking at about a 17-month delay, but that has no impact on our ability to support the nuclear weapons stockpile," Mr. Ramsey said.

Mr. Ramsey is employed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the recently formed, semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department. The group oversees security concerns related to nuclear weaponry.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. It decays and must be replenished frequently inside reservoir storage components to ensure that a warhead will fire.

"We've been loading that out here since the 1950s," Mr. Ramsey said.

The United States has not created new tritium since 1988. Instead, it has recycled the gas at SRS before shipping it to parts of the country where the weaponry is housed.

But tritium's constant decay means it can't be recycled forever.

New facilities in Aiken and in Tennessee mark the resumption of new tritium creation.

"It will be created in a nuclear reactor, one of three owned by Tennessee Valley Authority, and shipped here," Mr. Ramsey said. Production in Tennessee will begin in the fall, he added.

He said the building is called an extraction facility because the gas is trapped in a solid form at the reactor. When it arrives at SRS, it must be burned in an extraction plant furnace and pumped over to existing tritium facilities.

The extraction facility is expected to cost $506 million and be fully operational by July 2007. Before, the project was slated to cost $401 million and be done by February 2006.

Mr. Ramsey cited several reasons for overruns with the project - design changes mandated by Congress, bids coming in higher than expected and heightened national security concerns - but he said Westinghouse's management practices also were to blame.

The company was penalized accordingly.

"They had prior incentive that gave them the opportunity to earn $9 million out of the contract, plus a small provision for sharing any underruns," Mr. Ramsey said. "They earned $1 million and lost $6 million - $2 million came back to us."

Although portions of Westinghouse's fee associated with the contract have not been allocated yet, the contractor will complete the project at a loss, spokesman Will Callicott confirmed.

"I think we're optimistic that we've got a path forward that's going to be successful on the project," he said during brief statements on the project.

Mr. Ramsey said the extraction facility and its equipment are designed to last at least 40 years and have "surge capacity."

That means more tritium can be handled if the United States ever decides to expand its nuclear weapons stockpile, he said.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.

Construction on the tritium facility is about 25 percent complete. The project is expected to be finished by 2005. Start-up testing is slated to begin in 2006; initial tritium production is set for July 2007.