Y-12 CRITICALITY SAFETY PROGRAM “INADEQUATE”
SAFETY BOARD CITES SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS
One of the nation’s key nuclear weapons production facilities has been declared unsafe due to an “inadequate Criticality Safety Program” by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in a July 25, 2019 letter to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.
The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, manufactures core components, secondaries and cases, for US nuclear weapons from highly enriched uranium, lithium deuteride, beryllium, depleted uranium, and other materials. Y-12’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility also holds more than 400 metric tons of HEU, earning it the nickname “the Ft. Knox of HEU.”
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent government agency charged with providing safety oversight at nuclear facilities at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at other facilities across the nuclear weapons complex, released a letter from Board chairman Bruce Hamilton to Secretary Perry along with a February 11 staff report documenting numerous instances of recent criticality safety inadequacies stretching back several years.
The Safety Board staff concluded the string of abnormal events and the discovery of unexpected quantities of accumulated uranium in equipment used in several Y-12 processes “are linked to systemic issues” and “signify an inadequate Y-12 Criticality Safety Program.”
“The public has been repeatedly assured by officials at Y-12 that the one thing they do right is criticality safety,” said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, a grassroots watchdog organization, “This report is deeply troubling. It doesn’t just say they messed up once—it says the entire system is broken.”
The Safety Board’s report reviews past critiques of HEU criticality safety concerns at Y-12, including major recommendations in 1994 and 2009, and notes “between 2010 to present day minimal progress has been made on improvement actions.”
The Safety Board’s conclusion rests on three key findings:
• The inability of the nuclear criticality safety organization to adequately maintain the Y-12 Criticality Safety Program;
• Lack of ownership of and cooperation with criticality safety programs by the operations personnel at Y-12; and
• Inadequate interface between the Y-12 criticality safety program and support programs.
The Safety Board’s concerns are exacerbated by changes happening now at Y-12, including the construction of the Uranium Processing Facility bomb plant and a range of other activities dealing with fissile material.
“Maybe the most damning thing of all,” Hutchison said. “is the finding that the people doing the actual work with HEU at Y-12 are not fully on board with criticality safety. Either they haven’t been trained right, or they don’t understand the importance of it, and there is no leadership to change that. That’s inexcusable.
“When Geoffrey Beausoleil stands up in a public meeting and declares safety is Y-12’s highest priority, it’s because he knows that safety must be the highest priority. This report highlights the difference between the lipservice and the reality on the ground. Mr. Beausoleil has not been honest with us.
“If the criticality safety program isn’t working, not just in one place but across the board, workers and the public are at risk.”
A nuclear criticality event at Y-12 would force a shut down of the nation’s only facility with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons secondaries and cases and would effectively end the US nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program, Life Extension Program, and any efforts to produce new nuclear weapons.
The Safety Board report can be read here.
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