Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2020
By Bob Mayberry
On July 17th, 2020, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) released its “Final Supplemental Analysis” of earthquake risk at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The report concludes that the risks from a major earthquake “would not be significantly different” from results presented in previous reports. Based on that conclusion, the NNSA will continue construction of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) bomb plant at Oak Ridge. The UPF is part of NNSA’s Enriched Uranium Operations; in addition to the new facility, several buildings which have already been deemed “out of compliance” with current seismic and environmental standards will be used for highly enriched uranium weapons production operations until at least 2040.
The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) called the latest earthquake risk analysis “inadequate,” claiming it fails to meet federal standards for environmental studies. OREPA has been joined by Nuclear Watch New Mexico, the National Resources Defense Council and several individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NNSA dating back to July of 2017, aimed at stopping construction at Y-12 until adequate environmental studies are completed. In September of 2019, a federal court ruled that the NNSA had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously … in their failure to properly evaluate the environmental impacts resulting from the US Geological Survey’s increased seismic hazard forecast for East Tennessee.” The judge vacated two previous Supplement Analyses and one Record of Decision, a significant victory for OREPA and its co-plaintiffs. The judge ordered the NNSA to prepare a new environmental analysis using the latest US Geological Survey earthquake data. But just three days later, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the NNSA administrator, authorized continued construction of the UPF and use of storage facilities without addressing any of the deficiencies or dangers identified in the judge’s ruling, although the NNSA did promise to conduct a new earthquake risk analysis.
That analysis was made public on April 10 this year. The analysis shows that the consequences of a worst-case earthquake disaster scenario are ten times greater than was previously reported. The difference lies chiefly in the continued use of out-of-compliance buildings on the Y-12 site.
On April 15, OREPA filed a Motion for Enforcement with the court asking the judge to compel NNSA to suspend construction activities at Y-12 while it prepares the legally required environmental studies for its enriched uranium program at Y-12.
On May 5 the NNSA announced that it would not renew its contract with Consolidated Nuclear Services when it expires in 2021. CNS, hired to manage operations at Y-12 and the Pantex facility in Amarillo, Texas, was cited for failing to address long-standing criticality safety deficiencies that could injure workers and release radioactive material within the Oak Ridge facility. NNSA has announced, however, that the contract change will not affect construction of the UPF; Bechtel will continue that work uninterrupted.
It’s unlikely that NNSA’s July 17th earthquake risk analysis will be the final word in this on-going legal battle. With NNSA now publicly admitting that safety violations have occurred at Oak Ridge, OREPA and its fellow plaintiffs will be evaluating new legal action to stop the construction.