Working on nuclear weapons in street clothes: Was that too much to ask?

upflookAlmost from the get-go on the Uranium Processing Facility, way back to those early planning stages, a bottom-line argument for building a new production center at Y-12 was to better protect the nuclear workers.

The stories about conditions at the World War II-era 9212 facility are legion, of course, with workers forced to don hard hats to ward off chunks of concrete falling from the ceiling (although that story may have been exaggerated) and use respirators in order not to breathe the fumes of uranyl nitrate and other hazardous stuff in process. At one point, and it may still be true, Y-12 workers accounted for 90 percent of the internal radiation doses in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Anyway, the UPF fact-finding report by Parsons, which was assigned to look at things following the big design problem on the multibillion-dollar project, raises questions about an overwhelming priority to safety on UPF (with a plan to do much of work inside sealed gloveboxes). The report suggests that may have contributed to a design that wouldn’t accommodate all the needed equipment and added about half a billion dollars or more to the cost.

In a section of the report titled, “Beliefs, Legends and Culture,” the Parsons review team provided an interesting look at the importance of workers of the future being able to carry out their jobs without protective gear. Or, as it’s subtitled, “Workers in Street Clothes.” In fact, it questions the very essence of the safety goal.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The safety objective to eliminate ‘hands-on’ material processing operations, while admirable at first glance, has been detrimental to effective safety implementation and has provided a false sense of direction for appropriate safety controls and engineering. This concept vividly represents ‘do safety, and work if you can,’ instead of ‘work safely.’ The early application of gloveboxes, in spite of the significant increase in design complexity and risk, space requirements, and cost, appears to be unjustified. Had a documented cost/benefit analysis been performed, the conclusion would likely have been to use less expensive and complex confinement solutions, which were less space intensive. Although some effort has been made to find alternatives to gloveboxes, the need to effectively eliminate exposue to radioactive materials at all costs has never been seriously challenged.”

NEW FEATURE: You can sign up for email updates from Atomic City Underground and receive a notice each time new information is posted. Just put your email address in the box on the lower right of the blog’s front page and follow instructions.

This entry was posted in DNFSB, NNSA, nuclear, UPF, Y-12 on by .

About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.