DOE Issues New Rule for Workers: Don’t Put Highly Enriched Uranium in Your Pocket

Melanie Arter | October 30, 2015 | 10:15am EDT
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Signs warn against trespassing onto the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

( – Following an investigation by its inspector general, the Department of Energy has issued a new rule advising its workers to refrain from putting highly enriched uranium in their pockets.

“After interviewing chemical operators and reviewing revised Y-12 procedures, we confirmed that chemical operators are no longer allowed to place samples in their pockets and must check their pockets before removing their coveralls,” said a report issued by the DOE Office of Inspector General.

The report, released in September, described a safety violation that occured last year at the DOE’s Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

"We received allegations that special nuclear material (SNM) was not appropriately managed at the Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12)," said the IG report. "Specifically, we were informed that on January 22, 2014, highly enriched uranium (HEU) samples were discovered in the pocket of coveralls located on a laundry truck that annunicated an alarm as the truck tried to exit Y-12s Protected Area."

The DOE's Y-12 National Security Complex is involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, according to the department's Y-12 website.

"Y-12's core mission is to ensure a safe, secure, and reliable U.S. nuclear deterrent, which is essential to national security," says the site.

“Every weapon in the U.S. nuclear stockpile has components manufactured, maintained or ultimately dismantled by Y-12, the nation’s Uranium Center of Excellence,” the website stated. “We employ only the most advanced and failsafe technologies to protect the stockpile.”

According to the report, when there is a safety violation inside the facility, workers who discover the violation should “establish at least a 15-foot boundary around the samples, make no attempt to correct the situation, and notify Nuclear Criticality Safety (NCS) about the discovery.”

This is known as Y-12 procedure Y56-001, Abnormal Condition Involving Fissile Material.

This “mitigates the risk of adverse health effects such as radiation sickness, increased risk of cancer, and possible death,” according to the report.

“NCS determined that the requirements of the procedure to establish a safe stand-off distance were not met,” the report stated.

“We determined the requirements were not met, in part, because it was unclear as to whether Y56-001 procedures applied outside of the production facilities, as in this case. Also, we were told that training on this procedure did not specify that the procedure should be used outside of the production facilities,” the report added.

The inspector general’s review of the incident “revealed that Y-12 had not completed corrective actions concerning: 1) a safety violation that occurred during the discovery of the HEU samples, and 2) the untimely notification to the Plant Shift Superintendent Office (PSS) about the discovery of the HEU samples.”

After the inspector general’s office notified Y-12 officials, they agreed to implement corrective actions for both issues, according to the report.

Also, the report noted that PSS officials were not notified of the incident until about eight hours afterwards, whereas PSS officials are supposed to be notified immediately about such safety violations, according to Y19-115, Reporting and Handling Security Concerns and Events.

According to one employee at the facility, they assumed that PSS was already aware of the incident, but could not remember who notified PSS or when PSS was notified. “This confusion led to the delayed PSS notification,” the report stated.

Officials at the Y-12 facility have taken steps to improve the tracking and handling of highly enriched uranium and other special nuclear material, the report noted.

“Although Y-12 already had a bar code tracking system in place prior to the incident, SNM samples were exempt from bar code tracking because SNM samples were considered Category IV nuclear material due to their low weight,” the report stated.

According to a Y-12 Subject Matter Expert (SME), the possibility of “a nuclear criticality accident occurring during the incident was very low,” because the “minimum critical mass” for such an incident is over 700 grams, while the samples in question only contained 20 grams of uranium. Also, personnel wore proper protective equipment. contacted the Department of Energy with questions about the report, but the DOE has not responded.

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