• Nuclear Material Found In Laundry Leaving Oak Ridge

    Radioactive material used to make nuclear weapons almost left a secure government facility after a worker there forgot to empty his pockets before throwing his clothes in the laundry.

    Highly enriched uranium “samples were discovered in the pocket of coveralls located on a laundry truck,” which set off an alarm as the vehicle tried to exit a nuclear facility’s protected area on Jan. 22, 2014, according to a Department of Energy Inspector General report.

    The facility, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. has processed highly enriched uranium that has been used in nuclear weapons for more than 60 years.

    “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,” the report said.

    A 15-foot boundary wasn’t set up around the truck during the incident to prevent unprotected people from getting too close.

    “The establishment of boundaries … mitigates the risk of adverse health effects such as radiation sickness, increased risk of cancer and possible death,” the report said.

    The boundary wasn’t created because Y-12 officials weren’t sure if it was required outside of production facilities, inspectors found.

    Y-12 officials didn’t agree to update their procedures in setting up a boundary until after the IG began its review, even though they denied the suggested clarifications following a previous internal investigation.

    Also, Y-12 superintendents weren’t notified of the incident until around eight hours later because of “confusion,” the report said.

    One person on the radiological control team “assumed facility personnel would notify” superintendents about the incident, the report said. A facility employee assumed superintendents were “already aware of the incident, but could not recall who may have notified” them.

    Y-12 procedures for notifying superintendents weren’t clarified until after the IG’s review.

    Special nuclear material is typically tracked with a bar code system. The sample on the laundry truck, however, was small enough that it didn’t need to be tracked, according to Y-12’s procedures.

    After the incident, Y-12 changed its rules to require all nuclear material samples to be tracked.

    The threat of a nuclear incident was very low, a Y-12 expert told inspectors.

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