Feb. 05--OAK RIDGE -- The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration came to Oak Ridge on Tuesday to address a recent incident involving the mishandling of enriched uranium at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. But details of Bruce Held's visit were treated hush-hush, and officials declined to comment on what actions may be underway at Y-12 to ensure that similar incidents don't happen in the future.
Oak Ridge officials referred all questions to NNSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and federal spokeswoman Keri Fulton had no comment on the day's activities or future plans.
"It's an ongoing investigation," Fulton said.
The focus of the investigation is a recent event in which a Y-12 technician working in a radiological area with the required radiological work permit reportedly left a sample of enriched uranium oxide in the pocket of his lab coat or the outer layer of protective clothing. According to multiple reports, this piece of clothing was removed and placed in a hamper as the worker reached the so-called boundary control station, before continuing on to an area where he was checked for radiological contamination and then exited to a "clean area."
The worker reportedly did not intend to leave the uranium in the pocket, or the accompanying paperwork, but there are strict rules and regulations in place for handling and accounting for nuclear materials, especially enriched uranium of potential use in nuclear weapons. The nuclear material reportedly was discovered as the clothing hamper passed through a security portal and set off an alarm.
As he has on previous visits to Y-12, Held met with plant employees Tuesday, but this reportedly was not the "all-hands" session done before. This one took place in a conference room at the Jack Case Center, the plant's main office building, and there apparently was only room for a few employees from each of the different Y-12 departments to attend.
Held reportedly was positive and upbeat about some of the things that Y-12 did right, including the security response to the incident. But there is talk within Y-12 about new steps to formalize the protocol for handling even the smallest quantities of nuclear material.
There are multiple layers of protection in place to make sure that quantities of weapons-usable uranium do not leave the plant, and Held, in a statement over the weekend, emphasized that this sample of uranium oxide never left the plant's high-security area.
"It was a small sample of uranium oxide, it did not exit the secure area, and there was no threat to worker or public safety," Held said. "The Y-12 security people did their job."
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