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Crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Part 5—Y-12 at a Crossroads

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
September 16, 2022

This is the fifth column in a series regarding the unfolding, unprecedented crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex (NWC) (the first column on how U.S. budget politics since 1969 have damaged the NWC is here; the second on how nuclear weapons ended exponentially deadly warfare among the great powers is here; the third column on issues with manufacturing plutonium “pits” is here; the fourth on the troubles at the PANTEX plant in Texas is here). This column discusses the current missions of the Y-12 National Security Complex and how that facility is at a crossroads regarding its future.

Tucked in a long, narrow valley between two ridges of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Tennessee (see the satellite photo accompanying this column), Y-12 is the remains of the sprawling Manhattan Project facility that enriched the 65 kg of Uranium 235 used as the fuel for the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The specific facilities within Y-12 that enriched Uranium, including one of the largest buildings ever constructed on Earth, are long dismantled in the aftermath of the United States assembling about 30,000 nuclear bombs during the Cold War. Also decommissioned are the experimental nuclear reactors that pioneered the processes used to make Plutonium for nuclear weapons and the plant that enriched Lithium for the fusion components of bombs. One legacy of those activities is hundreds of billions of dollars in cleanup costs related to the handling of Uranium and the many tons of toxic Mercury used to enrich Lithium. Overall, Y-12 is another poster child for decades of deferred maintenance, dubious safety practices and neglect within the NWC.

Officially, the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory manufactures the fusion secondary components (Canned Secondary Assemblies) to be inserted into the finished bombs, a crucial weapon component known as “channel filler” and depleted Uranium 238 metal casings for the bombs. Unofficially, for decades Y-12 mostly has been a storage depot for components from dismantled nuclear weapons (including Canned Secondary Assemblies) while the United States no longer built any new bombs. Locked away at Y-12 are about 135 metric tons of highly enriched Uranium 235, much of which is destined to be burned in forthcoming nuclear reactors for U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers. As discussed in my prior column about PANTEX, similar issues with maintenance at Y-12 raise the disturbing possibility that stormwater and Uranium could end up mixing with catastrophic results. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of devastating storm events in the watersheds around Y-12; another such storm easily could result in catastrophic flooding there.

The existential crisis at Y-12 is that the facility may no longer have a unique purpose within the NWC. After about a decade of debate within the NWC, Y-12 apparently will not be constructing a new Lithium enrichment plant. Instead, the current objective is to “scrape” the Lithium Deuteride fusion fuel left over from decommissioned bombs for use in new bombs. There is no specific advantage and many disadvantages to storing Canned Secondary Assemblies and manufacturing bomb casings at a location so remote from where the United States assembles nuclear weapons (currently at PANTEX). The manufacture of bomb casings could be transferred to the Kansas City Plant or to Sandia National Labs as could responsibility for the “channel filler”.

One other possible Y-12 mission lurking on the horizon is the construction of the first ever Uranium centrifuge enrichment plant within the NWC. You may be surprised to learn that the United States has never used centrifuge technology for military purposes. Eventually, the NWC will need to enrich Uranium, not to create bomb fuel, but to fuel the specialized reactors that make Tritium for “boosting” the fission triggers in the bombs. The United States previously has used one reactor at the Tennessee Valley Authority for making Tritium, but treaty commitments related to the sourcing of Uranium will end that practice. Going forward, the NWC eventually will need to build a centrifuge plant but there is no specific reason that should be done at Y-12 aside from the historic legacy of Y-12 as the centerpiece of enrichment activities during the Cold War.

Legacy is not a sound rationale for locating a new multi-billion dollar NWC plant in the era of sharp federal government budget constraints.

Combined, all the issues facing the NWC point in the direction of a major change in how the United States manages the building of thermonuclear weapons. This series has documented the severe bottleneck ahead regarding the manufacture of fission triggers, the terribly dilapidated, unsafe conditions at PANTEX and the possible end of the road for Y-12. As noted above, in the background are the shifting environmental circumstances related to climate change that could result in nuclear materials getting exposed to water during storm events at vulnerable facilities like PANTEX and Y-12. Among all the nuclear powers, only the United States and Russia have bomb complexes that are so decentralized and so dominated in their design by the security and resource concerns of the 1940s. My next and final column of this series will discuss possible options for reforming the NWC.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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