• While current estimated UPF cost is $6.5 billion, total appraised value of Hamilton County property is $26.9 billion.
• UPF cost is about 23 percent of county's appraised property value
• At $11 billion, UPF cost is nearly 41 percent of county's appraised property value
With a price tag at least six times the cost of Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, the planned $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility in nearby Oak Ridge is "the project of a lifetime" and a catalyst for growing area companies, an official said Thursday.
"This area is in a very desirable position. Proximity has its advantages," said UPF director John Eschenberg about prospects that local businesses can tap into building the facility dubbed the state's biggest construction project since World War II.
About 150 business people showed up at a briefing in Chattanooga on how their companies can land a part of the UPF at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Nearly half of the investment in the weapons plant will go into materials and equipment.
"I want to make sure Chattanooga businesses get their fair piece of the pie," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleishmann, R-Tenn., whose congressional district includes both Chattanooga and Oak Ridge.
The UPF will replace an aging facility and provide a modern site for maintaining and dismantling nuclear weapons, officials said. Y-12 also provides nuclear materials for the U.S. Navy and research reactors, and it disposes of materials and does packaging and storage.
Richard Brown, who's handling procurement for UPF, said about 400 companies across Tennessee and 41 in Hamilton County have expressed an interest in the project so far.
"We hope to get a lot more," he said.
Early work has begun on the new UPF site where a road is being rerouted and some abandoned power lines and poles are undergoing removal. Brown said officials are "deep into the engineering cycle" for the project. The construction peak should be in 2017 or 2018, he said, through work could run to 2025 when it's expected to be operational.
About 1,700 construction workers are slated to be on site during the apex of the work, officials said.
And, the project cost could go up, according to some estimates.
While the Department of Energy has said it could cost up to $6.5 billion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2011 estimated the eventual price could be up to $11.6 billion, according to Fox News.
Fleischmann said that no one knows at present how much UPF will ultimately cost.
"I'll continue to fight the battle to get fiscally more responsible, but we'll make sure Oak Ridge gets the funding and Tennesseans get the work," he said. "The longer we delay projects, the more they're going to cost."
Fleischmann said UPF could have been built anywhere in the country, but Tennessee has it and there's a national commitment to build it, and he expects minority and women business owners will participate at "a meaningful level."
At the same time, there are some who question spending so much on UPF. The Project on Government Oversight, which calls itself a nonpartisan independent watchdog group, argues in a report that the nuclear work doesn't need to be done in a new pricey facility.
"There is significant evidence to suggest that some aspects of the UPF mission can be carried out at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and with a few modifications and refurbishments, at existing facilities at Y-12," the report said.
Fleischmann, however, said he's confident UPF is needed.
"America needs enriched uranium. There's no question about that," he said.
Chattanooga businessman Emerson Russell said his company, which offers security and janitorial services, hopes to attract some UPF work.
"I think the prospects are real good," he said. "We're doing everything we can."
Harley Grant, chief executive of Chattanooga-based Applied Thermal Coatings, said his company has done work at Y-12, and he's hopeful his company will fit the UPF project, too.
Ron Harr, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, said Oak Ridge is less than 90 miles away.
"We can help this important national project come to pass," he said.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said it's important that when government purchases services, that it does so in the right way. He said the city plans to unveil in a few weeks a new way it will do purchasing.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said nearly half of the UPF project will be spent on materials and services and quipped that "we're looking forward to all that disposable income coming back" to the county.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.