Y-12 shipped 10 times too much U-235; contractor fined $33,620 for DOT violations

Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Consolidated Nuclear Security, the government’s managing contractor at Y-12, was fined $33,620 for a July shipping error involving a kilogram of weapons-grade uranium. (KNS photo/Michael Patrick)

A July 13 shipment from the Y-12 National Security Complex to a company in New York contained 10 times the intended amount of bomb-grade uranium, violating multiple regulations and resulting in a $33,620 fine.

According to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the shipment contained 1,000 grams of highly enriched uranium metal — more than 93 percent U-235, the fissionable isotope — instead of the intended 100 grams.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, in response to questions earlier this fall, confirmed there was a shipping error involving “special nuclear material,” but declined to say how much material was involved, the type of material or where it was sent.

Documents released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show that the material was shipped by Consolidated Nuclear Security — the government’s managing contractor at Y-12 — to Mirion Technologies Corp. in Horseheads, N.Y. The company develops radiation detection equipment and other instruments for the nuclear industry.

The Department of Transportation cited the Y-12 contractor for two violations:

— Offering or accepting a hazardous material for transportation that is not properly classed, described, packaged, marked, labeled, or in proper condition for shipment. This violation notes the fact that the labeling on the shipment did not accurately reflect how much enriched uranium was actually shipped in the containers. Also, the shipment, given the amount of fissionable material involved, should have been sent via “exclusive transport,” but wasn’t (via the commercial carrer, YRC Freight).

— Failing to retrain hazardous material employees every three years. The documents indicate that a chemical operator who placed the uranium into packages at Y-12 did not have adequate training.

In a response to investigators with the Department of Transportation, CNS Vice President Darrell Graddy described the company’s review and said the direct cause of the shipping mistake was human error.

“Personnel mistakenly placed more material into the containers than was intended,” Graddy wrote in an Aug. 31 letter to Joseph Gubino, a hazardous material safety specialist with DOT.

“Once the discrepancy between the amounts listed on the container labels was identified, personnel changed the labels without verifying the amounts (inside the packages),” he wrote.

Because of those changes, the Criticality Safety Index and the Transportation Index — two of the controls associated with safe shipment of radioactive materials — didn’t match the actual contents of the packages, “resulting in illegal shipment of radioactive material,” the Department of Transportation stated.

Graddy said the Y-12 contractor has since made changes in the “workflow software” that’s used on the shop floor so that if an operator changes the weight in the system to match the packing instructions, the software “will flag the difference.”

The vice president also said CNS has issued a “standing order” to ensure that only properly trained hazmat employees at Y-12 are assigned to the transportation projects.

The documents indicate that Y-12 used the wrong shipping containers for the commercial delivery to Mirion Technologies, apparently due to the misunderstanding about how much fissionable material was being shipped.

According to supporting documents used in the investigation, two 5-gallon “Type A” drums were used to ship the highly enriched uranium to New York, departing Y-12 on July 13 and arriving three days later.

Each drum reportedly had a maximum limit of 60 grams of U-235, but the actual amounts shipped in the containers were 460 grams in one, 540 grams in the other.

The amounts were confirmed in an Aug. 24 email from James D. Cunningham, the transportation and traffic manager at Y-12, to Gubino, a special agent with DOT.

As noted previously, once the error was discovered by the recipient in New York, Y-12 sent a special team to the facility to repackage the material and prepare it for return to Oak Ridge. The documents indicated that 1,000 grams — more than two pounds — of highly enriched uranium were transferred to a Type B container for the return shipment, meeting the standards for the Class 7 radioactive material.

Ellen Boatner, a spokeswoman at Y-12, said Consolidated Nuclear Security paid the fines.

“Y-12 representatives have been in contact with DOT and have cooperated with their findings and paid any fines,” she said. “Corrective actions have been identified and have been implemented to ensure full compliance for all Y-12 shipments.”

All of the uranium sent to Mirion in July was later returned to Oak ridge, and it’s not clear if Y-12 later shipped the correct amount of uranium — 100 grams — to the New York facility.

The National Nuclear Security Administration did not respond to follow-up questions, and efforts to reach Mirion officials for comment were not successful. The company apparently followed procedures in notifying Y-12 of the shipping error.

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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.