Y-12 uranium shipment reportedly violated DOT rules

y12signA federal spokesman at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant confirmed that a July shipment did not comply with some Department of Transportation regulations for transporting hazardous materials, and he said Y-12 officials have been in contact with DOT and “are cooperating with their findings.”

Steven Wyatt of the National Nuclear Security Administration also confirmed that the “special nuclear material” shipped from Y-12 to a commercial facility was uranium, although he refused to say if it was highly enriched or weapons-grade uranium and would not specify how much uranium was sent to the unnamed facility.

The NNSA, a semi-independent part of the U.S. Department of Energy that oversees the nuclear weapons complex, confirmed last week that Y-12 inadvertently shipped more nuclear material than intended to a private facility. After the mistake was discovered, a special team from Y-12 reportedly went to the site and secured the material for return to Oak Ridge.

Federal officials last week refused to elaborate on the incident, but Wyatt late Monday, in response to questions, released some additional information about the unusual event that involved material with strict handling protocols and security measures.

But the agency was adamant about not revealing details of the material.

“We are not disclosing how much nuclear material was shipped,” Wyatt said. “While the amount was small, the weight of the material exceeded the amount that should have been shipped.”

Asked how Y-12 could ship the wrong amount of nuclear material, the spokesman said, “Upon a thorough investigation, it has been concluded that the direct cause of the event was human error. Personnel mistakenly placed more material into containers than intended.”

He did not immediately comment on whether the uranium was weighed before it was shipped off-site.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not identified the NRC-licensed facility that received the special nuclear material, and Wyatt declined to comment.

Wyatt said the facility was authorized to receive such materials, but added, “We are not disclosing the name or location of the commercial facility.”

He also would not say whether any personnel at Y-12, federal or contractor, were disciplined as a result of the incident. “We do not discuss personnel matters publicly,” he said.

Wyatt said the nuclear material originally was shipped commercially, using a “certified transportation service.”

He said the material did not leave the United States. He acknowledged that the shipment did not comply with some of DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety and Hazardous Material regulations.

Wyatt said the federal agency worked with Consolidated Nuclear Security, the government’s managing contractor at Y-12, to investigate the incident. He said they had completed the investigation and taken corrective actions.

A spokeswoman with the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General refused to confirm or deny whether the IG was investigating the incident. Wyatt said the NRC had not sent any representatives to Y-12.

The timetable of events is still unclear. The NNSA has refused to give the date of the original shipment, except to say July, or specify when the mistake was discovered or the date when the material was returned to Y-12.

“Shipments of this nature require receipt confirmation,” he said. “The receiver followed all appropriate protocols for receiving and storing nuclear materials. Upon receipt and inspection, Y-12 was immediately notified and the material was appropriately secured until returned to Y-12.”

At no time was there a risk to employees, the public or the environment, Wyatt said. He said the NNSA was unaware of any similar incidents involving other shipments of special nuclear materials.

Staff members of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, were briefed on the incident and provided this statement from the senator: “An incident like this, even if there was never a threat to public health and safety, must be taken very seriously by Y-12 and the National Nuclear Security Administration.”

Tyler Threadgill, communications director for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., whose district includes Oak Ridge and who serves on the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, said Friday the congressman was briefed on the event and “is pleased Y-12 officials took quick and thorough action.”

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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.