At the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, even success is shrouded in secrecy.

Y-12-DismantlementAt the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, even success is shrouded in secrecy.

According to plant officials, Y-12 last year dismantled more weapon parts than at any time in the past quarter-century. Because of classification rules, however, they can’t say how many parts were dismantled or provide even a ballpark estimate of how big a backlog of Cold War bomb components is still waiting to be taken apart.

That’s the way it is at the Oak Ridge plant, known officially as the Y-12 National Security Complex.

Despite the limitations, senior officials are willing – even eager – to talk about the post-Cold War dismantlement program that’s taken on added momentum in the Obama administration.

“I think what we do makes our nation safe and more secure because we disposition the components that could be used against us if someone were able to – somehow or another, God forbid – gain access to them,” said Brian Gullett, the dismantlement program manager with B&W Y-12, the contractor that manages the government plant.

Describing Y-12’s work beyond the superficial is a challenge. Almost any information that pertains to the design or construction of nuclear weapons is classified and off-limits.

During a recent interview with Gullett and Bill Reis, a vice president who oversees Y-12’s defense programs, two classification officers were in the room making rulings on what could and could not be said in response to questions about the weapons work.

Generally speaking, Y-12 workers today are dismantling the same parts that the Oak Ridge plant manufactured years ago when the United States was in an arms race with the Soviet Union.

Those subassemblies include the second stage of thermonuclear weapons – so-called secondaries – made of highly enriched uranium, lithium compounds and other materials.

Even though the total number of dismantlements at Y-12 will dip slightly in 2010, Reis said, the accelerated work rate remains in effect and will continue for at least another decade.

Y-12 receives parts from the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, where the initial disassembly takes place after nuclear warheads and bombs are retired from the U.S. arsenal. Government couriers deliver the parts to Oak Ridge in secure trucks used exclusively for the transportation of nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials.

“Sometimes they come in drums – different size drums – and sometimes when they don’t fit in drums, they come on dollies. Typically, the bombs they come on dollies because they’re usually bigger. Not always true, but typically true,” Reis said.

The nuclear cargo is unloaded at Y-12’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, a fortress-like storehouse that was completed last year at a cost of $549 million. The weapon parts are stored there until its time for dismantlement. Then they’re transported via truck from the storage center to the main assembly/disassembly facility, Beta-2E, which is about a quarter-mile away. Both facilities are in the plant’s highest-security zone, which is known simply as the Protected Area.

The overall dismantlement strategy is to take bomb components and use various techniques to break them apart and make them smaller. In the process, workers sort materials according to those to be recycled for reuse or storage at Y-12 and those to be shipped off-site for disposal or other uses.

“Each disassembly is sort of its own unique situation,” Reis said. “We have to go through a very thoughtful process of how to best take these apart, and we’ve learned how to do that.”

Click here to read the full article.

Source: Frank Munger | Knoxville News Sentinel
Photo: B&W Y-12