The smell of highly enriched uranium

buttonI reported earlier about a new book by Steve Gibbs, a former official with Wackenhut Services when the security company managed the protective force at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge. That post was mostly about Gibbs’ comments on the July 28, 2012 break-in at Y-12 and the not-so-pleasant aftermath.

Gibbs’ book, however, is about much more than the break-in by peace activists and the turmoil that followed. It traces his career, from a time in the Air Force to his hiring as a security guard in Oak Ridge and much more. He has some great anecdotes in the book, such as his recollections about working as a security police officer at Y-12 — the nation’s primary repository for bomb-grade uranium.

Here’s an excerpt about his recollections of working as a security guard in the “material access areas” (MAAs) at Y-12, where highly enriched uranium was stored or processed for use in components for nuclear weapons.

“Most of the guards laughed about wearing a dosimeter because in the minds of many, if a person was in close enough proximity to a radiation release to see a blue arc, it would fry the dosimeter.

“I had no idea what the materials and chemicals were in the MAAs, but I never liked the smell of those areas and what I considered the strange taste in my mouth after entering  some areas. I was told the smell was the solvent used during some machine operations. The signs posted indicating they were radiation areas, chemical areas and beryllium areas were enough to concern me. What a boring, tedious and, at times, scary job.

“Those of us required to be in those areas did not feel comfortable working in some of the MAAs. The fan rooms in some of the MAAs were always dirty and loud. Criticality safety requirements were in place at the time, but they were nothing like the current requirements today. For example, during my days as a guard working in the MAAs, workers could actually eat in the areas. That is something which is absolutely forbidden today. Lunch break rooms were even inside the MAAs.”

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This entry was posted in B&W, CNS, NNSA, nuclear, security, 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.