The National Nuclear Security Administration has ended its deal with a federal defense contractor it says failed to meet safety and security standards, including lapses that could have injured workers and released radioactive material within an Oak Ridge facility.
The contractor, Consolidated Nuclear Security, has operated the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge and the Pentax plant in Texas on behalf of National Nuclear Security Administration since 2014. It replaced the previous contractor, B&W, after antinuclear protesters broke into Y-12 in 2012. B&W protested its termination for much of 2013.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is the part of the Department of Energy responsible for maintaining and securing the nuclear weapon’s stockpile. Many of its facilities are managed and maintained by federal defense contractors, who run the day-to-day production work.
Consolidated’s contract is due to expire Sept. 30, 2021.
“The National Nuclear Security Administration’s decision is disappointing, but it does not overshadow the important work performed by the patriots who come to work every day at our sites,” Consolidated Nuclear Security spokesperson Jason Bohne said in a written statement.
In its annual contractor report card, the National Nuclear Security Administration outlines several critical problems with Consolidated Nuclear Security’s management of Y-12. National Nuclear Security Administration said that Consolidated Nuclear Security had failed to correct serious, longstanding performance problems that “perpetuated unacceptable risk to the overall operation of the National Nuclear Security Administration.” These issues included problems with “criticality safety” and cyber security.
The National Nuclear Security Administration had cited Consolidated earlier this year for lapsed safety procedures.
Previous safety violations
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s report card was released shortly after another federal agency, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, filed an open letter with Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette citing serious safety violations at the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility in Oak Ridge, a central repository for enriched uranium storage.
The Safety Board said that Consolidated Nuclear Security had been improperly storing and labeling potentially “pyrophoric” nuclear material in the Highly Enriched Uranium Material Facility during 2018. Pyrophoric material can spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Instead of confirming that the material was safe, the Safety Board letter says that Y-12 personnel relabeled the material as safe for storage.
“The staff concluded that the materials in question have not been characterized sufficiently to determine whether or not they may ignite if exposed to air or if subjected to mechanical impact,” wrote a representative of the Defense Nuclear Safety Board in an email to Knox News.
“Ignition of the materials in a container could lead to a thermal runaway reaction that could breach the container and potentially injure workers nearby in the facility as well as release radioactive material within the facility,” they continued.
The report warned that this kind of mishandling risked causing an accident like one that occurred in 2018 at Idaho National Laboratory in which four barrels of radioactive material ruptured. Firefighters had to be called to stop the smoldering material from starting a fire.
The Safety Board has given the National Nuclear Security Administration 90 days to address these issues from a workplace safety, long-term storage and nuclear waste disposal perspective.
“Reports like this make me appreciate the fact that the DNFSB exists,” wrote Ellen Smith, an Oak Ridge City Council member. “Without an independent oversight body that has both the technical expertise and the access authorization necessary to evaluate potential safety concerns inside secure DOE facilities like Y-12, it could be much harder for our citizens to feel safe living near these facilities.”
This is not the first time the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has raised alerts about safety issues at Y-12, under Consolidated Nuclear Security’s watch. A 2019 DNFSB report to former DOE Secretary Rick Perry outlined issues going back to 2010 that were not dealt with by the contractor after it took the contract.
Criticality when radioactive material undergoes a fission reaction. When a nuclear reactor “achieves criticality” the reaction has started. But criticality is dangerous when it occurs absent human control. This can be caused by improper storage of nuclear material, uncontrolled collection of nuclear material in corners or moisture.
Accidents like this release heat, light and high doses of radiation locally, harming people nearby. A criticality accident in 1958 at Y-12 hospitalized eight workers.
The 2019 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report lists several cases where uranium was found by workers or safety inspectors in unexpected places. Uranium slag had accumulated in a chute and sand separator for years after Consolidated Nuclear Security personnel quietly stopped emptying a section of the production process intended to temporarily hold waste. A black, gel-like substance had been visibly accumulating in clear tanks since Consolidated Nuclear Security took over in 2013 and changed a chemical solvent used in the process. As of the 2019 report, it was still unclear if this substance contained uranium.
The report also says the team responsible for safety at Y-12 was understaffed and routinely derided by Consolidated Nuclear Security’s production staff and management as “paper pushers.” Labor cuts were the majority of the Consolidated Nuclear Security’s cost reduction strategy, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report, and have been a recurring issue for the Safety Board.
Safey, environmental issues go back decades
But safety problems at Y-12 cannot be laid at Consolidated Nuclear Security’s feet entirely. The Y-12 complex has had long standing safety and environmental problems since the 1950s. Mercury pollution has been a long standing concern, particularly in the Clinch River and Watts Bar Lake. Understaffing of safety positions was a problem the DNFSB had been highlighting since 2006.
More recently, Y-12 has come under fire from environmental groups for failing to adequately assess the earthquake safety of the complex. David Jackson, a professor of geology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the National Nuclear Security Administration self-assessment was inadequate because it failed to address secondary earthquake effects, like fires or floods, or examine Y-12’s site-wide vulnerability. The National Nuclear Security Administration assessment focuses on only a few buildings.
“NNSA’s analysis of seismic risks is not well-founded scientifically. It suffers from numerous analytical defects, ignores or downplays important data, obfuscates the importance of the fact that existing buildings do not meet modern standards, and fails to employ modern tools for seismic risk analysis.” Jackson wrote in his comments.
The National Nuclear Security Administration declined to comment but did say that Jackson’s comment would be considered among the other public comments.
It is unclear what happens next.The bidding process on the new contract has not yet started. New contractors have not stepped forward yet. A spokesperson of Consolidated Nuclear Security was unsure whether they would appeal the decision.
Consolidated Nuclear Security has said in public statements that they will continue to abide by the NNSA’s requirements and expectations going forward. An National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson said that they expect to have a new contract by the end of October 2021.
Who this contract might be with, and whether they can safely operate the complex are uncertain.