DOE To Rebuild Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee
by Paloma Galindo

The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to spend $4 billion to rebuild the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This will enable Y-12 to create 10 times as much nuclear weapons work with a 60 percent broader range than current levels.

The bogus draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which has just been commented upon, would recreate Y-12 with the ability to not only continue the work of upgrading the US nuclear stockpile, but also to be able to manufacture parts for new bombs. DOE documents indicate the national labs are already chomping at the bit to develop a new generation of "mini-nukes." The DOE calculates that a mini-nuke would be less offensive than a multi-megaton bomb to the world community, despite the fact that a mini-nuke would still spread death and contamination over broad areas, subjecting the world to radiation poisoning.

Y-12 is the last remaining full-scale nuclear weapons production plant in the United States. Starting with the Little Boy bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and continuing today, Y-12 has manufactured parts for every nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. Y-12 is responsible for the actual thermonuclear bomb that fits into the carrier vehicle (missile). Y-12 also contains the world's largest storage of highly enriched uranium.

The Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Component Plant spreads over 811 acres with an additional 4,800 acres used as a fenced security buffer. The lush and fertile valley that was confiscated during the Manhattan Project is home to many species that travel across the fence-line.

For years, hunters given permits on the nuclear reservation have been required to bring all deer killed to an assay station, where inspections regularly reveal contaminated body parts requiring confiscation. In a 1990 environmental survey, grass growing at the Y-12 plant was discovered to contain radiation.

In 1983, DOE admitted that more than two-million pounds of mercury had previously been "lost to the environment."

Efforts to determine where the mercury went, led the DOE to estimate that 440,000 pounds of mercury were lost to land, 51,000 pounds to air, 1.3 million pounds are unaccounted for and 240,000 pounds traveled off site through East Fork Poplar Creek.

East Fork Poplar Creek was long used as an industrial drainage ditch by Y12. It originates inside the complex and travels off-site and through the city of Oak Ridge. It flows into the Clinch River then into the Watts Bar Reservoir followed by the Tennessee River, Ohio River, the Mississippi and finally into the gulf. When talking to a Y-12 employee, individuals were told that mercury was the least of the problems. To this day, mercury continues to leach into the creek.

Y-12 reported the release of 20.9 kilograms of uranium, including 1.2 kilograms of enriched uranium into the air, this is just what was reported.

The predominately African-American Scarboro community sits less than one-half mile from the Y-12 plant. (It is the closest residential area to a nuclear facility in the country.) The Scarboro community's soil, tested in 1998 (after the plant was on stand down for four years) showed elevated levels of highly enriched uranium in the surface of people's yards! This showed that Y-12 was illegally burning radioactive materials in the incinerator, and the volitized materials were released into the air.

Although Y-12 sits on an aquifer and studies have shown that yes, indeed, waste does filter through limestone and soil into the water, the DOE is still unable to tell how far the contamination has spread. Folks who drink the groundwater are not warned, and in fact, one woman in Scarboro had her spring tested by the DOE and was told the water was "pure."

The EIS notes that groundwater to the west has been contaminated by hazardous chemicals and radionuclides, and the aquifers below Y-12 are contaminated with nitrates, solvents (tricholoroethene and others), radionuclides (uranium and technetium99) and heavy metals (uranium, cadmium, strontium). Wells to the east of Y-12 contain volatile organics like benzene and toluene and a murderer's row of metals: boron, beryllium, cobalt, copper, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, manganese, nickel and uranium.

One member of the Scarboro community counted over 500 cancer related deaths within the community since 1945. Yet the DOE claims that there are no environmental justice issues. If Y-12 is allowed to rebuild and increase production, the Earth and neighboring communities will suffer that much more contaminated waste that will never be able to be dealt with.

The DOE says it needs a new bomb plant because it needs to maintain a stockpile of 6,000 nuclear weapons for the US arsenal. This is said during a time in which Russia has ratified the START2 Treaty committing them to reduce their stockpile and President Vladimir Putin has called for deep arsenal reductions.

The US military has petitioned Congress for authority to reduce its nuclear stockpile, estimating that we can save $9 billion a year if we retire unusable and unneeded missiles.

Meanwhile, the United States continues its search for a boogie-man to justify larger budgets and increased production while the window of opportunity for disarmament closes. We need your help.

You are invited to the April 7-8 action at the gates of Y-12. Saturday will include nonviolence training for those committing to an act of civil conscience (arrest scenario) and Sunday is the march, rally and action, with plenty of non-arrest and equally important activities. If you can't make it, send us a postcard and let the DOE know why it shouldn't rebuild. We will put them on the 50-foot inflatable missile that will be at the rally and then give them to the media and Y-12. The cards will help illustrate that people from all over the world don't want Y-12 to be rebuilt! Please help spread the word, tell folks about Y-12 and come to the gates.

We are in a pivotal time. A time that will either be remembered as the turning point when we stood for peace or a time recorded by some future species hypothesizing about the cause of our disappearance.

I remember a phrase, "love is not an abstract emotion, but a call to action." This is our choice: to give in or to rise to the occasion, seize the moment and build the world we want to live in.

For more information, contact Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, POB 5743, Oak Ridge, TN 37831; (865) 483-8202;

© Earth First! Journal, March-April 2001