A look at Y-12’s uranium storehouse

Photograph HEUMF razor wire.Y-12 photo

The Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility is a massive structure on the west side of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, and it may very well house the world’s largest inventory of bomb-grade uranium at a single location.

That’s not clear because the actual amount of uranium in storage is classified. Plus, it’s constantly changing as nuclear weapons are retired from the arsenal and the enriched uranium is recycled for use in other weapons or reserved as fuel for the nation’s fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Construction of the 110,000-square-foot, fortress-like storage facility was essentially completed in 2008, but it took another couple of years to undergo all the reviews and tests to make sure it was ready to house the high-security nuclear assets. Stocks of uranium were then transferred from other storage facilities at Y-12 to the vaults of HEUMF, and loading was completed in 2011.

The cost of the project was just under $550 million, which seemed like a lot when hundreds of workers were engaged in the construction. But that price tag is now dwarfed by the projected cost of the Uranium Processing Facility — $6.5 billion — which gives you some idea of how complicated that’s going to be.

Anyway, given its size and the scope of work and the security that surrounds it, the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility has maintained a fairly low profile over the years.

The big exception, of course, was July 28, 2012. That’s when, in the early hours of the morning, three protesters — including an 82-year-old nun — made a mockery of Y-12’s security by cutting through multiple fences to reach the uranium storehouse in the plant’s forbidden zone. They spray-painted messages and splashed blood on the HEUMF’s exterior walls. Although those walls were quickly cleaned and repainted, the images have not gone away.

There have been other, occasional news stories about the uranium storehouse, including a report that cracks had developed in the exterior of the mammoth concrete structure.

More recently, during a weekend in late April, there was a problem with an alarm system that warns of nuclear accident conditions. That, too, received a modest amount of attention.

And Y-12 periodically receives shipments from sites around the world where enriched uranium has been recovered from potentially vulnerable sites and sent to Oak Ridge for safekeeping.

Although federal officials aren’t usually specific about the whereabouts, it can be assumed that the material has been placed in storage at HEUMF. That probably includes a shipment from Japan that arrived earlier this week.

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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.