March 16, 2007
OAK RIDGE – A federal safety board is questioning the safety of enriched uranium operations at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, saying workers and the public could be at risk.
A.J. Eggenberger, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said he was concerned about deteriorating conditions at the 9212 Complex – the plant’s main production facility where highly enriched uranium is processed for nuclear warheads. He called for regular reports to verify the safety of structures, systems and equipment.
In a March 13 letter to the National Nuclear Security Administration, Eggenberger cited a couple of recent uranium spills as an example of problems at the 60-year-old facility.
“The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is concerned that continued operations in the aging 9212 Complex involve significant safety risks to workers and the public,” he wrote in the letter to Tom D’Agostino, acting administrator of the NNSA.
The NNSA is a part of the U.S. Department of Energy and oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. The federal safety board reviews conditions at defense-related nuclear facilities and has two full-time staff members assigned at Y-12, but the board has no actual enforcement powers.
There have been ongoing discussions between the safety board and the NNSA about ways to upgrade 9212 until a replacement facility is constructed. The old facility at Y-12 does not meet the structural requirements for high-hazard nuclear facilities, including protection against earthquakes. In addition, the process systems involve old equipment in frequent need of repair.
The Uranium Processing Facility, a proposed $1 billion project that would replace 9212, is still in the early design stages.
According to the defense safety board, it’s likely that Y-12 will need to operate 9212 for at least 15 more years.
“To ensure public health and safety in the interim, the board believes that an annual assessment of operations in the 9212 Complex should be performed to verify that its systems, structures, and components remain in an acceptable, reliable and safe condition,” Eggenberger wrote.
He asked for a briefing within the next six months on NNSA’s plans to assess the safety of Y-12’s uranium-processing operations.
Kevin Smith, the deputy federal manager at Y-12, said Thursday he believes current operations at 9212 are safe.
“We wouldn’t operate it unsafely,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “That’s a given. That’s a responsibility we have to our workers and the public.
He said federal officials were still evaluating the letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
Asked about Eggenberger’s statement that continued operations in 9212 involve significant safety risks, Smith said he thought the board chairman may have been referring to long-term concerns.
“We’ll have to make sure we understand exactly what the defense board meant by that,” Smith said. “Let me just say this. We believe this facility is safe at this time. We’re going to continue to monitor it, and we will stay intimately involved with the defense board.”
Eggenberger said federal managers at Y-12 did a review last year to identify “facility improvements” needed to ensure continued safe operations.
Those recommendations, however, primarily addressed the “operational reliability” of 9212 and did not “adequately address the systematic and extensive upgrades that would be required to operate this facility for an extended period of 10 or more years,” the safety board chairman said.
Eggenberger said the NNSA has stated that major modifications to the structure and processes at 9212 would be “impractical” because of the high cost and also because construction “could significantly disrupt important national security missions.” He said the safety board agreed with those arguments and advocates a “regimen of increased vigilance and close observation” to ensure safe operations at Y-12.
“However, the board remains concerned that the 9212 Complex may reach a point in the near future where adequate safety cannot be assured without significant investments to upgrade safety systems,” Eggenberger wrote in his letter.
Bob Alvarez, a former DOE official who authored an October 2006 report highly critical of Y-12’s uranium safety, applauded the letter from the safety board.
“There needs to be some major attention to the deteriorating conditions of this plant,” Alvarez said Thursday. “It’s a real serious problem. The nuclear safety program inside of DOE is just broken.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration would rather spend its money building new facilities than fixing old process systems, such as those at 9212, Alvarez said in a telephone interview from his home in Maryland.
“There’s always been fierce opposition to upgrading these facilities. Safety gets short-changed. It’s a victim of competing priorities,” he said.
Smith called 9212 a “legacy” facility that has some issues associated with its age, and he said there are continuing assessments of safety at the old operation. “It will have to be a living document,” he said.
The federal official declined to comment on whether two spills of enriched uranium solution last month could have, and should have, been avoided. “I’m not an expert in that area,” he said, promising a response later.