The Y-12 facility stores large amounts of uranium (Image: Jim Lo Scalzo/epa/Corbis)
It’s the kind of stuff you’d want to keep strict tabs on. Yet in July, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, dispatched more uranium to a private company in the US than it meant to, it now admits.
This was caused by human error, saysof the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the Y-12 site. “Personnel mistakenly placed more material into containers than intended,” he says.
Contractors at the unnamed firm reported the overgenerous delivery, prompting– to take action. “All material shipped… was recovered by a Y-12 team and returned to the Oak Ridge site safely,” says Wyatt.
“These things shouldn’t happen,” saysof the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington DC. Alvarez security and safety at Y-12, which has struggled since the cold war’s end to safely manage its vast stores of uranium, he says.
Shipping extra uranium comes with several concerns. Since the material can be further enriched to make a nuclear bomb or can serve as the explosive fuse that ignites one, and since its radioactivity can harm the environment and human health, Y-12 tries to track it carefully.
In 2013,that it logs every minute change to its uranium store in an attempt to catch mistakes like this, including changes in storage location and amounting to more than 7000 records per day.
Besides the error in bookkeeping, transporting uranium in larger-than-expected quantities brings special safety considerations into play, Alvarez says.
Increasing the amount of uranium brings it closer to the point at which it can go “critical” in a self-sustaining release of energy. And a worker unprepared to unload a larger shipment might end up handling it unsafely.
Those potential compounding issues didn’t apply here, according to Wyatt. “At no time was there risk to employees,, or the environment,” he says. He adds that internal investigations have already concluded, and changes are being implemented, though he did not want to discuss them in detail.
That the error was caught by the receiving company and not picked up by Y-12’s monitoring system is still alarming, Alvarez thinks. “They engage in faith-based management,” he says. “They basically rely on whatever the contractor tells them.”
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