Nuclear Safety Issues at Oak Ridge

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 @ 04:10 PM gHale

During a dismantlement project at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, a “large” weapons component came loose from its lifting apparatus and fell four feet to the floor.

While hearts were beating a bit faster, no one suffered injuries during the Aug. 9 incident and there was no damage to the component, said a plant spokeswoman, who added, there was no way the bomb part could detonate.

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“The components processed at Y-12 are not at risk of exploding,” said Ellen Boatner of B&W Y-12, the government’s contractor.

The incident was a “near miss.” But that is one of a number of safety-related issues catching the eye of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board of late.

In another report, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said 18 drums of nuclear weapons parts were improperly stored at Y-12 for months, violating nuclear criticality rules.

The weapons parts had move in April from their previous storage vault while it was under construction, according to the report. The alternate storage site, however, did not meet safety specifications, even though the project team had met with nuclear safety specialists numerous times and discussed the need for possible changes.

Y-12 managers said the Oak Ridge plant is safe.

“We feel very strongly that our workers, the environment and the public are safe. Very strongly,” said John Stewart, chief of nuclear safety operations.

The Y-12 officials said safety guidelines at the nuclear weapons plant have many layers designed to prevent serious accidents from happening. They suggested the reporting of detailed findings may sometimes give the appearance of something more serious than it is.

In an Aug. 25 letter to the National Nuclear Security Administration, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Chairman Peter Winokur offered Y-12 wasn’t meeting the standards expected at a major nuclear facility.

“A strong conduct of operations program requires a sound set of technical procedures and strict adherence by the users to ensure that safe operation of the facility is maintained,” Winokur wrote, following a review by staff of the safety board.

“During the review, the staff identified additional examples of weaknesses in procedures and their use by B&W personnel that have the potential to jeopardize the safety of workers and possibly that of the public and the environment,” Winokur wrote. He asked for a report within the next six months that addresses the weaknesses.

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