False alarm at Y-12’s Purification Facility


NNSA photo

It was about 9:15 a.m. Thursday, and the program was just getting started at the Tennessee Labor-Management Foundation conference when an announcement interrupted the proceedings in Y-12’s New Hope Center. Building 9225-3 was being evacuated, the announcement on the plant’s PA system said.

The Y-12 building, also known as the Purification Facility, had been evacuated back in December due to a chemical spill, and it had only recently been restarted.

“My heart stopped,” Consolidated Nuclear Security President Jim Haynes, who was in the audience at New Hope, said of his reaction when he heard the announcement.

The situation turned out to be a false alarm. But Haynes acknowledged that thoughts were running through his head about whether some repairs at the facility had gone awry or what else might have gone wrong.

Bill Tindal, the contractor’s Y-12 site manager, said a sensor apparently was activated during a Thursday operation in which a drum was being loaded and cleaned. “The alcohol wipe got a little too close to the sensor and set the sensor off,” Tindal said.

“Fortunately, it was a false alarm,” Haynes said. But he and Tindal both expressed confidence in their personnel to respond to events properly.

“We live on the edge here all the time,” Haynes said. “We’re operating a hazardous site.”

The Purification Facility is an important facility that produces Fogbank, a classified substance used in some nuclear weapons, including Trident warheads.

Officials have not released details of what went wrong that caused the spill of acetonitrile in mid-December. An earlier statement said “maintenance issues” contributed to the problem.

On Thursday, Haynes said there had not been sufficient preventive maintenance done at the facility, and a decision was made to repair some equipment at the Purification Facility before restarting operations.

“The only thing I can say is this was a facility that really had continued to operate for several years without doing enough preventive maintenance to ensure that we could continue to operate it . . . So, instead of putting an immediate fix in place (after the spill) and getting up and running in a few days like we expected, we decided to do the right thing. We did a pretty significant overhaul of some of the equipment to make sure that we fully protect our employees, and it took longer to do that. But we decided that was clearly the better approach . . . That’s the approach we’ll always take here.”

Even though the Purification Facility is relatively new — beginning operations in 2008 — it still requires maintenance, Haynes said.

Not all risks are associated with the age of buildings, he said. More often they’re associated with processes or with the materials being used, he said.

There is a system at the plant to determine the maintenance priorities, and the previous situation at the Purification Facility didn’t draw attention as soon as it should have, he said.

“So we suffered that issue, and I think we responded in the right way,” Haynes said.

Tindal said Thursday’s evacuation at the Purification Facility showed the proper amount of caution.

“Some would argue that it’s conservative,” he said. “I’ll take conservative over anything else.”

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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.