Note: This story was updated at 8:30 a.m.
The plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court in July alleged that there is a risk of a catastrophic collapse of old buildings containing nuclear weapon components at the Y-12 National Security Complex, possibly due to a large earthquake. A catastrophic collapse “would likely” result in the release of nuclear or toxic materials and place the environment and local residents in “extreme peril,” the plaintiffs said.
But federal officials denied that allegation and others in a response filed in late September.
The 44-page civil complaint, which is related to the planned Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12, was filed July 20 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The seven plaintiffs include three public interest organizations—Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, and Natural Resources Defense Council of Washington, D.C.—and four people who live in Oak Ridge and Knoxville.
The federal lawsuit asked for an environmental review of the new design for the UPF, where design plans have changed from one building to three. The lawsuit alleged that the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration have violated a federal environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, as they implement the major design change.
Specifically, the plaintiffs have requested a new supplemental environmental impact statement or a new site-wide environmental impact statement for the revised UPF design. They cited the decision to build several new buildings and the plan to continue using existing buildings that the plaintiffs say have significant structural defects. They want the U.S. District Court to vacate, or void, a supplement analysis and an amended record of decision prepared by the NNSA in 2016.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry and NNSA Administrator Frank Klotz filed a 29-page response to the lawsuit on September 29. Besides denying the risk of the catastrophic collapse alleged by the plaintiffs, the response from Perry and Klotz denied that NEPA and another law, the Administrative Procedure Act, have been violated.
Perry and Klotz said the plaintiffs are not “entitled to relief” in the form of a supplemental environmental impact statement or a new site-wide environmental impact statement.
At the center of the civil lawsuit filed in July is the NNSA’s decision to switch the proposed design of the UPF from the single building to three smaller buildings—and to continue to use some existing, but deteriorating, buildings at Y-12, according to the plaintiffs.
The UPF design changed three years ago as the total estimated cost of the UPF rose to between $10 billion and $12 billion. Officials expect the new multi-building design to help keep the UPF cost at $6.5 billion or less. It would be the federal government’s largest investment in Tennessee since the Manhattan Project during World War II.
The federal lawsuit filed in July challenges what the plaintiffs describe as the NNSA’s “refusal” to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to consider important new information about the “serious vulnerability” of the new design.
“This new design is significantly different from the one the agency chose to analyze in 2011,” the lawsuit said. “Most importantly, the NNSA decided to save money on the modernization of the aging Y-12 Complex by not building a single new building to house the entire UPF, but instead constructing several new buildings and continuing to use old and increasingly deteriorating buildings for processing nuclear weapons components. This case challenges the NNSA’s plans to implement this major change in the UPF design without considering in a NEPA analysis crucial new information about the increased odds of large earthquakes and the risk that such an earthquake may cause these decrepit buildings to collapse or even explode.
“This case also challenges the NNSA’s failure to consider whether the ongoing use of these old and vulnerable buildings may impede efforts to clean up extensive prior contamination, which has led to the entire Y-12 Complex being listed as a Superfund site—but never completely cleaned up—for over 25 years. The NNSA’s refusal to consider this important new information places the environment, local communities, and national security in grave peril and violates NEPA and the Administrative Procedure Act.”
DOE and NNSA said it did not have to file a legal response to those allegations, which they called the plaintiffs’ characterization of their case.
Here is an example of what the lawsuit alleged elsewhere:
“The harms to OREPA’s interests include the risk of a catastrophic collapse of aging buildings containing nuclear weaponry or components of nuclear weaponry, which would likely result in the release of nuclear or toxic materials, placing the environment and local residents in extreme peril. The harms to OREPA’s interests also include the reduced ability of the federal government to conduct necessary cleanups of legacy contamination that has accumulated over the course of decades of nuclear weapon production at Y-12, and which the Department of Energy’s Inspector General has stated poses ‘ever-increasing levels of risk’ to workers and the public. The harms to OREPA’s interests also include the deprivation of environmental information analysis to which it is legally entitled, and denial of the opportunity for informed public participation that is a cornerstone of the NEPA process.”
Here is the response from Perry and Klotz: “Defendants deny the allegations of this paragraph.”
That response was repeated a dozen times in answer to claims made by the plaintiffs.
Federal officials argued that some of the plaintiffs may lack standing to bring a lawsuit, some of the claims are not “ripe for review” while others may be moot, and some claims may be barred by the statute of limitations.
Y-12 was built to enrich uranium for atomic weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II, and it remains the nation’s primary site for processing and storing highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. It’s the only site in the United States that produces certain components of nuclear weapons, including so-called “secondaries,” which initiate the fusion reaction in a nuclear explosion, and “cases,” which house both the secondaries and other bomb components. Y-12 is also a site where nuclear weapon secondaries are dismantled, and where nuclear materials are processed and stored.
Y-12 is an NNSA site. The NNSA is a separately organized agency within DOE, and it is responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
The four individual plaintiffs—Ed Sullivan of Oak Ridge and Ralph Hutchison, Jack Carl Hoefer, and Linda Ewald of Knoxville—all live between five and 25 miles from Y-12. They said they are concerned about existing contamination at Y-12 and the risk of an earthquake causing a significant or catastrophic nuclear accident at the roughly 800-acre plant.
Hutchison is OREPA coordinator and an NRDC member. He organizes many of OREPA’s activities, including annual anti-nuclear weapons marches and rallies, and he attends weekly vigils at Y-12. He has served on several federal and state advisory boards related to Y-12, according to the lawsuit, and he was the principal author of comments submitted by OREPA during the NEPA process for the NNSA’s design of the UPF.
The NNSA amended what is known as a record of decision when it decided to upgrade existing buildings at Y-12 and build the three new buildings instead of the single Uranium Processing Facility to house uranium production operations currently conducted in other buildings. That decision was made in part due to cost considerations. The re-design was made with help from a so-called “Red Team” led by former Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason. The original record of decision was July 20, 2011, and the amended record of decision was July 5, 2016.
A notice published in the Federal Register on July 12, 2016, said no further NEPA analysis is required because the NNSA has prepared a supplement analysis that was issued in April 2016.
Federal officials acknowledged in their response to the civil lawsuit that updated seismic hazard maps prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2014 showed a greater risk of a large earthquake in the area that includes Y-12 than had been believed six years earlier, in 2008. The 2014 seismic hazard maps showed the area around Y-12 could have an earthquake of 50 percent greater magnitude that had been indicated by the 2008 maps.
But allegations that buildings are “at significant risk in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake” are vague, ambiguous, and speculative, and are “therefore denied,” DOE and the NNSA said.
Federal officials acknowledged that the processing of nuclear materials—but not nuclear weapons—occurs in multiple buildings at Y-12, but they said allegations that many buildings are “old” and “increasingly dilapidated” are “vague and ambiguous and are therefore denied.”
The plaintiffs said the NNSA plans to continue using aging buildings with known structural problems at Y-12, some for at least another 25 years. Building 9212, part of Y-12’s processing operations, is significantly degraded and poses a serious risk of collapse, but the NNSA doesn’t plan to start demolishing it until 2028, the lawsuit said. It’s not clear when operations might be moved from other deteriorating facilities at Y-12, according to the plaintiffs.
Perry and Klotz said they can’t give definite dates about how long NNSA intends to continue using certain buildings at Y-12 because safety and technical analyses are under way. But an estimated use of those buildings through sometime around 2040 is a “projection only.” Perry and Klotz said the allegations that Building 9212 “shows significant degradation and poses a serious risk of collapse” are vague, ambiguous, and speculative—and denied.
Perry and Klotz said NNSA has developed plans to re-evaluate existing facilities, and based upon the re-evaluation, may require seismic upgrades to those facilities. The UPF would reportedly comply with modern seismic codes.
The two federal officials did not directly respond to allegations that Building 9204-2E and the 9215 Complex at Y-12 are vulnerable to earthquakes and have structural deficiencies that could result in an increased potential for structural collapse and the release of radiological material following certain seismic events, saying a 2014 staff report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board speaks for itself.
But they did say that the DNFSB recommendations, while not legally required to be accepted, helped contribute to the start of the Extended Life Program, which NNSA developed to ensure that Building 9215 and Building 9204-2E will “safely support future operations by reviewing regulatory issues and the physical condition of facilities and equipment and making recommendations for infrastructure investments.” The DNFSB is involved in reviewing and providing input on the Extended Life Program and its safety strategy, which help identify activities to maintain, refurbish, and replace components in Building 9204-2E and Building 9215 while “satisfying safety requirements for adequate protections of workers, the public, and the environment,” federal officials said.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs cited a March 2017 DNFSB report that they said confirmed that, if aging buildings at Y-12 were to collapse in an earthquake, “nuclear materials could be affected in such a way as to make criticality accidents credible,” and the facilities could not likely contain the release of radiological materials such as uranium dust from a nuclear criticality accident.
DOE and the NNSA said the DNFSB staff report speaks for itself and the plantiffs’ allegations require no response, but any allegations contrary what that report says are denied.
Responding to cleanup and contamination concerns, DOE and the NNSA said environmental cleanup at Y-12 has been and will continue to be performed in accordance with the schedule and requirements agreed to by the DOE Office of Environmental Management in a federal facility agreement between DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Low-level radioactive waste, mixed waste, and hazardous waste are properly stored and managed in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations, and DOE orders, the federal response said.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs also raised safety concerns over the UPF design, including related to its fire suppression system and glovebox windows. Gloveboxes are systems used for safe storage and handling of dangerous materials.
The UPF lawsuit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon on August 8.
Perry and Klotz have asked to move the case to U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee, but the plaintiffs are opposing that proposed transfer. Oak Ridge Today plans to cover that story separately.
In the meantime, it’s not clear that there has been any change to the ongoing work at UPF. One federal official said that simply filing a lawsuit does not change construction plans.
Additional progress on the UPF site was visible the last time Oak Ridge Today visited Y-12 on August 23.
Plans call for completing the UPF, where the 90 percent design has been completed, by 2025.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See the civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2017, here.
See the DOE and NNSA response from September 29, 2017, here.
See the notice of the amended record of decision published in the Federal Register on July 12, 2016, here.
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