Energy Department Accused of Ignoring Risks at Nuclear Facility

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The Natural Resources Defense Council and Nuclear Watch filed a federal lawsuit against Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday, claiming the government’s plans to use a half-century-old Tennessee complex for a new uranium processing facility risks a catastrophic nuclear incident in the event of an earthquake.

The uranium processing facility is slated to be built at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The Y-12 Complex was built as a part of the World War II-era Manhattan Project. Nuclear weapons are dismantled at the facility and nuclear materials are processed and stored there, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Washington, D.C. federal court.

Uranium is still processed at the Y-12 facility today, but the plaintiffs claim inefficient methods are used to transport the uranium from one part of the facility to another.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico – joined in the complaint by Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and four Tennessee residents – also claim many of the buildings at the Y-12 facility are old and dilapidated.

Along with Perry, Frank Klotz, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, is also named as a defendant.

“As the NNSA itself stated, ‘[m]ission-critical operations are scattered across multiple 40- to 60-year-old facilities. The facilities are oversized, contain technologically obsolete equipment of low reliability, and require excessive maintenance to maintain minimum capability,” the complaint states. “Much of the critical infrastructure is approaching or is beyond the expected design life.’”

The Tennessee facility also allegedly has contamination issues. The plaintiffs claim it has a great deal of nuclear and hazardous waste on site.

“The ‘9201-05 Alpha Facility’ at Y-12, which was built in 1944 and housed operations involving uranium, beryllium, and mercury, has been described by the NNSA as ‘the worst of the worst’ aging facilities, and by the Department of Energy’s [Inspector General, or IG] as ‘one of the greatest liabilities in the Department’s complex,’” the lawsuit says. “The IG also noted that ‘this facility presents a high risk to the workers and the environment,’ including ‘the potential for an explosion or reaction associated with remaining contaminants.’”

The Natural Resources Defense Council and its co-plaintiffs assert that the buildings at Y-12 currently pose a 50 percent greater seismic risk than 2008 maps had indicated.

“The 2017 [Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board] report confirms that NNSA will continue using aging buildings for the processing of nuclear weapons despite the fact that these buildings will likely collapse in the event of an earthquake,” the lawsuit states.

The NNSA’s plans for a new uranium production facility at Y-12 began in 2011, according to the complaint, when the agency recognized the need to modernize it.

But the planned construction faced design flaws and cost increases, which led to delays.

After facing a $10 to $12 billion construction cost, the NNSA looked to alternative design approaches, the plaintiffs allege.

“Instead of a single new building housing all uranium production activities at Y-12, the NNSA decided to build three smaller buildings and to continue to use various existing, but deteriorating, buildings at Y-12,” the complaint states. “Although the NNSA has not provided the public with definitive information regarding how long it intends to continue using all the aging buildings with known structural problems at the Y-12 Complex, the agency has made clear that it intends to use some of these buildings for at least another 25 years. The NNSA has also stated that it does not plan to begin demolition of Building 9212, which shows significant degradation and poses a serious risk of collapse, until 2028.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the other plaintiff say they wrote to NNSA Administrator Klotz asking for a new environmental impact statement on the uranium processing facility’s design, but never heard back.

The plaintiffs seek a judgment declaring the defendants have violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

They also seek a supplemental environmental impact statement for the Y-12 uranium facility, and are represented by Eric Glitzenstein and William Lawton with Meyer Glitzenstein in Washington, D.C.

The Energy Department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

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