Earthquake risk should force Y-12 re-evaluation

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Aug 19, 2014 No Comments ›› orepa

The piece below ran as a Citizen’s Voice column in the Knoxville News-Sentinel on Saturday, August 16, 2014.


The shifting completion dates for the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex may seem to reflect the shifting political fortunes of the next bomb plant scheduled for Oak Ridge or the regrettable consequence of management failures. Or probably both.

Initially, the facility was scheduled to open in 2016, and now the date has been pushed back to 2025.

Why does it matter?

It matters because highly enriched uranium is currently processed in the deteriorating Building 9212 complex. That building is unsafe, but the National Nuclear Security Administration intends to keep using it until they can move into the Uranium Processing Facility.

Considerable money has been spent in the last decade to replace electrical systems and other support services, but the fundamental problem with Building 9212 can’t be fixed — from the ground up, the facility is structurally unsafe. According to the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board’s technical staff, it does not meet modern design standards for nuclear facilities and would not be expected to withstand an earthquake.

Two weeks ago, we learned the facility is even more unsafe than we knew.

For those of us living in the shadow of Y-12’s dangerous work, it matters. A catastrophic failure of Building 9212 would mean not only the tragic loss of workers’ lives, it would mean the release of highly enriched uranium and other materials into the air and water. A fire, not at all unlikely, would disperse radioactive uranium in its most dangerous form — breathable. The nation would immediately lose its capacity to keep track of its inventory of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium. And the cleanup of a catastrophically contaminated site is something U.S. Department of Energy officials have not even begun to contemplate. They live in a state of denial, which multiplies the peril for those of us who live in the state of Tennessee.

Officials simply deny that an earthquake will happen. They denied it in 1994, when Science magazine published an article indicating low-level seismic activity in East Tennessee was likely an indicator of a larger earthquake in the future.

Now the United States Geological Survey has updated its earthquake maps using the latest models and data, and the risk in Tennessee is rising. We are among the 16 states most at risk. East Tennessee’s increased risk over the 2008 analysis is among the highest in the nation, as shown on the new study map by a darker shade of red.

The new data placing Tennessee at high risk, combined with the geology underlying the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge (an unstable mixture of subsurface material and a high water table), raises the question whether it makes sense to host such terribly hazardous work here.

The USGS says seismic activity in East Tennessee is likely to be more severe than previously thought. The triad of potentially worse seismic activity, the higher likelihood of seismic activity and the aging of the Y-12 facility create the atmosphere for a perfect nuclear storm.

The new data from the USGS underscores the ongoing concerns raised by the Safety Board and should compel the National Nuclear Security Administration to revisit its Environmental Impact Statement for Y-12. At the very least it demands a new analysis of the potential impact of the UPF on the environment.

Ralph Hutchison is coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. Kevin Collins is president of the Board of Directors of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. They may be reached at orep@earthlink.net.

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