Given the nature of the work at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, much of it involving uranium that doesn’t require a lot of shielding, there’s an abundance of 55-gallon drums used for storage and transport. And, based on a review of recent occurrence reports at Y-12 and incident summaries by staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, bad things occasionally happen when you put a bunch of stuff in a drum, put a lid on it and let it sit for a while.
According to a late-August report by safety board staffers assigned to Y-12, the plant shift superintendent authorized “emergency work” to deal with the discovery of several pressurized drums at Building 9215. And, during an effort to vent those drums, some Fire Department personnel — who fortunately had donned HAZMAT suits and respiratory equipment — got sprayed with a “viscous material.” Again, fortunately, the protective gear did its job, and a subsequent survey determined that they had not become contaminated with radioactivity.
Consolidated Nuclear Security, the government’s managing contractor at Y-12, took a number of corrective actions to ensure that the remaining drums were properly vented and issued a standing order to restrict similar work until further review.
The safety board report provided some background on this incident. Waste management and production workers had previously filled about 20 of the 55-gallon drums with liquid from a tank used to collect waste liquids — such as mop water, hydraulic fluids and water and oil used during operations with depleted uranium. The liquid stew had been stored in the tank for more than five years and was being emptied to support the restart of machinery in that part of Building 9215.
Before filling the drums, some of the waste workers noted “biological growth” on the surface and some of the material had “formed into a thick sludge.” Noting these conditions, the workers filled the drums and placed lids on them, but they made sure that each lid had “expansion vent plugs” and “loose bung plugs” to make sure they could vent gases if generated. Despite those efforts, at one of the drums was later found to be bulging and a couple of others had “abnormal indications.” That’s when the emergency operations took place. According to the report, CNS planned to hold a critique to discuss what, if any, additional actions are needed.
Y-12 spokeswoman Ellen Boatner said the final occurrence report for the 9215 drum problems has not been released, but she said there were no injuries, no personnel contamination and no release of hazardous materials to the environment.
In roughly the same time frame, there were other drum issues at Y-12’s Beta-2E facility and the 9720-5 warehouse (pictured, above).
A defense board staff report, for the week ending Aug. 28, said the Y-12 contractor held a critique for senior manager to address a “series of issues” involving drums that had been loaded at Beta-2E — where nuclear warhead parts are assembled and taken apart — and Building 9720-5, a nuclear warehouse at the site.
First off, the report noted there had been issues raised in late July about the documentation associated with some drums that had been transferred to the warehouse. It was noted there was not sufficient information to determine whether the materials stored in the drums was within the maximum allowable safety limits for 9720-5. Several days later, the report stated, another issue came up when a shipment of drums arrived from Beta-2E, and six of those drums weighed less than what was indicated on the shipping document. (Note: This issue was raised within a month after Y-12 mistakenly shipped more special nuclear material than intended to an off-site facility.)
At that point, according to the staff report from the DNFSB, the Special Nuclear Materials Operations Manager at Y-12 suspended acceptance of drums from Beta-2E’s dismantlement activities.
“On Aug. 10, SNMO personnel discovered a bulged and hissing drum in a separate batch of drums stored at Building 9720-5,” the report stated. Those drums had been loaded at Beta-2E prior to 2012 and had been stored in the Building 9720-5 warehouse while awaiting final disposition.
An occurrence report indicated that it was decided to puncture certain “suspect drums” that had been packed and in storage since before 2012 as a precautionary measure, and about 60 other drums were to be repackaged to meet current requirements.
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