Bruce Held: ‘Any anomaly anywhere involving fissile material is serious’

Bruce Held, the government official who oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, declined to get into specifics of an incident at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant that reportedly involved the mishandling of enriched uranium. He cited the ongoing investigation.

However, when asked about the seriousness of the incident, Held provided this response by email:

“Any anomaly anywhere involving fissile material is serious. That said, 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. The Y-12  security people did their job.”

Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, a subscription newsletter, was first to report on the Y-12 incident. The newsletter said a scientist inadvertently left a sample of uranium oxide in his work clothing and that it was discovered later when the clothing set off a monitor while en route to being laundered.

There are strict rules for materials accountabilty at Y-12, which is the home to the nation’s primary stockpile of weapons-grade uranium.

Held, acting chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said he had not seen the published report and deferred comment on details. He noted, “Yes, there was an issue with a small amount of uranium oxide. To be very clear, it never exited the secure area.”

In the past, Y-12 has sent at least some of its work clothing to a commercial off-site facility to be laundered. There was incident two years ago in which a work shirt was contaminated with radioactive cesium, raising questions about its origins because cesium is not a part of the Y-12 mission work.

In the latest Y-12 incident, it was not immediately clear whether the uranium oxide was potentially headed off-site before being discovered.

Held is traveling to Oak Ridge to discuss the incident with Y-12 officials and hold an all-hands meeting Tuesday with Y-12 employees.

While in Oak Ridge, Held said he also would meet with Oak Ridge National Laboratory personnel involved with a Red Team that’ll evaluate potential alternatives to the costly Uranium Processing Facility.  Held established the team, headed by ORNL Director Thom Mason, to take a fresh look at ways to conduct Y-12’s uranium missions and allow the plant’s to shut down operation in antiquated facilities — such as the 9212 uranium-processing complex — by 2025. The goal is to get the job done with the cost range of $4.2 billion to $6.5 billion. Some recent estimates have suggested the UPF, as previously envisioned, could cost $10 billion or more — with one high-end estimate of $19 billion.

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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.