ARLINGTON, Va. — The federal official who oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons complexes confirmed Wednesday that a mid-January incident at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. involved the improper handling of two vials of highly enriched uranium, totaling 20 grams.
Bruce Held, acting chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, responded to questions about the incident during and after the opening session of the sixth annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. The event is being held this week at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va.
Held said he’s still unable to discuss some details because of an ongoing inquiry into exactly what happened, but he characterized the uranium as being “improperly stored.”
Early reports indicated that a technician working in the plant’s 9212 facility, where uranium is processed in many forms, inadvertently left samples of uranium oxide in a pocket of his lab coat or work overalls. The nuclear worker’s protective clothing was reportedly tossed into a laundry hamper as he went through a series of radiological checks on his way out of the uranium operation and into a “clean” area.
Security guards were credited with discovering the material, apparently responding to an alert from a metal or rad detector, before the clothing left the plant on its way to a commercial laundry.
“The two vials never left the secure area,” Held said. “There was never a worker or public safety issue, and the positive side of the incident is that the Y-12 security forces, they did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
The federal official acknowledged that if security personnel had not found the highly enriched uranium, which is used in nuclear warhead parts, it could have left the site.
“It could have gotten out of the plant,” Held said. Even then, it would not have created a nuclear safety threat or a national security issue, he said, but the incident raised questions and concerns.
“So, the question is how do we make sure that these things get secured properly,” Held said.
He added: “It’s a matter of public trust and confidence in what we do. We need to keep better track of this stuff. ... We take these things very, very seriously.”
Held and his military aide, Capt. Geoffrey deBeauclair, visited Y-12 last week and met with employees to reinforce the importance of doing things right.
“The purpose of the all-hands meeting was, ‘Hey, you guys live here, you know how to do this, but if we have a real embarrassing thing it’s going to affect your guys livelihood and the well-being of your families,’ ” he said.
It’s up to Y-12 to come up with ways to do things better so he can approve the changes, Held said.
There have been a series of negative events at Y-12 over the past couple of years, most notably the security breach on July 28, 2012 — when three protesters, including an 82-year-old nun, sneaked into the plant and made their way unmolested into the highest-security area.
Held said when he arrived at Y-12 last week, he met with employees involved in the most recent incident, including a security guard who helped successfully recover the uranium.
“As I walked in, I said, ‘hey,’ and introduced myself and said, ‘tell me what your life has been like over the past 18 months ... since the July incident,’ ” he said.
Held said the guard told him he hated going to get a haircut because every time he went his buddies at the barber shop would razz him about the security incident. He told Held he felt humiliated.
Asked how he felt now, the guard said he felt a lot better.
“I said you should be,” Held said. “You did a really good job.”
More than 350 people are attending this week’s Nuclear Deterrence Summit, which wraps up Friday.
Speakers have included top military officials engaged in the nuclear weapons program, such as Vice Admiral Terry Benefit, director of Strategic Systems Programs for the U.S. Navy, as well as arms control experts and specialists in nuclear weapons policy.
Conference organizers said some parts of the schedule may be rearranged because of expected winter weather moving into the area.