Congressional auditors said a planned safety component for processing highly enriched uranium failed in recent trials, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.
The still-unbuilt Uranium Processing Facility, or "UPF" for short, was expected to use an insulating material in casting operations. However, project participants are now looking to find either an alternative insulator or another means of meeting the associated safety requirement, according to a Government Accountability Office report published on Friday.
"According to UPF contractor representatives, this risk is now the project’s most significant technological risk," GAO officials said of the component, which was intended for use at a site tentatively slated for construction at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.
The report airs separate concerns about a microwave uranium-casting system it says has not been adequately tested. It also says budgeting choices resulted in seven out of 19 key technology projects being unfunded in fiscal 2014.
The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration is responding to three of the assessment's five concerns, and forthcoming actions might address the remaining issues, according to the document.
GAO auditors said the technology concerns could remain important even if policymakers decide to pursue another project in the uranium site's place. Officials began examining other options for meeting the Y-12 facility's uranium needs after UPF preparations hit numerous schedule and cost overruns.
Officials at the semi-autonomous nuclear agency are "reevaluating the UPF project and may decide to construct a facility that is smaller and contains only select enriched uranium-processing capabilities," the congressional watchdog organization wrote.
"Whether NNSA continues with the UPF project or chooses to undertake a smaller project, the facility will likely cost billions of dollars, and its ability to meet critical national security needs will depend on successful development and deployment of new technologies," the GAO report states.