Y-12 keeps perimeter fence, removes the welcome mat for protesters

General manager of nuclear weapons plant says security fence was built to strengthen their security posture


July 21--OAK RIDGE -- Before dawn on Aug. 6, peace activists will gather near the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant for a solemn "Names and Remembrance Ceremony" in which participants take turns reading the names of those who died in the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

For the second year in a row, the peace group won't be allowed onto the grassy area near the Y-12 entrance, where protesters traditionally have joined to express their feelings about Hiroshima or nuclear weapons in general.

Following a July 28, 2012, break-in by three Plowshares protesters, including an 82-year-old nun, the government erected a new security fence along Scarboro Road that blocked access to the plant's sign and front yard.

"This was done in response to recent trespassing events at Y-12 in order to strengthen our security posture," then-General Manager Chuck Spencer wrote last year in a guest column in the News Sentinel.

The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance was unsuccessful in a legal attempt to force the National Nuclear Security Administration to take it down, although Ralph Hutchison, the group's coordinator, said they haven't given up the effort.

Hutchison said he still hopes that the NNSA will decide to take down the fence voluntarily, saying it was a "stupid" idea to put it up in the first place.

The cost of the fence has been questioned.

When the NNSA's contractors initially erected the "temporary" fence, the government estimated the cost at $95,000. When that cost figure was challenged, a federal spokesman said the estimate had been revised to about $41,000.

The NNSA's original estimate on a "permanent" fence was $150,000. Some observers have suggested that cost is too high because the proposed fence would be constructed of wooden posts and barbed wire. But the government has not released a revised estimate.

Spencer said the new fence was necessary because of changing times.

"While past decisions to allow demonstrations in this area may have been sound at the time, the fact is that we are now a more frequent target of intentional and illegal trespassing than ever before," he wrote.

The security fence was constructed of galvanized-steel barricades tied together end to end, and the NNSA said that was a temporary measure until it could construct the more-typical boundary fencing with barbed wire.

Although the temporary fence is still in place, NNSA spokeswoman Rebekah Nwangwa said the government still intends to build a permanent barrier.

"But we've not formulated any specific plans at this time and have not set a schedule for when we intend to pursue the installation of a new fence," Nwangwa said via email.

At recent protests, including a weekly Sunday vigil at Y-12, peace activists have gathered in a small area off the shoulder of Scarboro Road, directly across from the plant's main entrance.

Y-12 is a symbolic gathering point on Aug. 6 because of its role in the World War II Manhattan Project.

The Oak Ridge plant produced the enriched uranium that ultimately was used in "Little Boy," the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Copyright 2014 - The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.