Note: This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. April 8.
Several employees at the Y-12 National Security Complex have tested positive for COVID-19, the contagious respiratory illness that can be deadly, but the contractor that manages and operates the nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge declined Wednesday to say how many employees are infected.
Oak Ridge Today has reported on two Y-12 employees who were diagnosed with COVID-19 last week. Since then, the news website has received reports that other employees have also tested positive, possibly six total (including the two already reported). But Y-12 said it could not comment on the total number of cases, and the site did not comment on the condition of those employees.
“As of Wednesday, April 1, 2020, several employees at Y-12 have tested positive for COVID-19,” according to a response to questions from Consolidated Nuclear Security, the federal contractor that manages and operates Y-12 as well as the Pantex Plant northeast of Amarillo, Texas.
“Employees who tested positive and those who have been in contact with affected employees are self-isolating per the CDC’s guidelines,” CNS said. “In cases where employees are from the same organization, everyone working in affected buildings may be sent home as a precaution while the areas are sanitized.”
Y-12 did not say how many employees have been tested and how many have been self-quarantined or sent home, or how they might be paid while not working at the site.
“When we are notified of a confirmed case of COVID-19,” CNS said, “we immediately:
- Interview the employee and supervisors to determine where they have been and who they have been in close contact with for at least two days prior to symptom development.
- Notify those who have been in close contact with the affected employee and send them home for 14 days of quarantine.
- Disinfect the areas where the employee has been working.
Oak Ridge Today asked about the concerns of some people who think Y-12 is taking a “business as usual” approach. They have advocated for at least a partial closure such as might be used for a major snow event or more vigorous measures such as additional work-from-home options or more employee monitoring and testing.
On Wednesday, CNS said Y-12 was identified as a part of the defense industrial base by the under secretary of defense on March 20. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, has identified the mission essential activities that must, to the maximum extent possible, be maintained, CNS said.
The contractor said Y-12 and the Pantex Plant provide products and services that are required to meet national security commitments to the federal government and the U.S. military.
Y-12 stores highly enriched uranium, provides enriched uranium parts for nuclear weapons, provides enriched uranium for naval nuclear reactors, and supports nuclear nonproliferation work. Pantex supports the nation’s life extension program for nuclear weapons, dismantles nuclear weapons, provides for the interim storage and surveillance of plutonium pits (a nuclear weapon component), and develops, tests, and fabricates high-explosive parts.
“At this time, work at Pantex and Y-12 is deemed mission essential and has not been paused or changed,” CNS said. “While the nation requires us to remain operational, we are following CDC guidance to protect our workers’ health.”
CNS has 5,500 employees at Y-12, and there are roughly 800 Uranium Processing Facility employees. Pantex has more than 3,330 full-time workers.
CNS said it has encouraged social distancing and has introduced measures to reduce plant populations through teleworking and flexible scheduling. Meetings are conducted by teleconference or Skype whenever possible, CNS said.
“The sites have increased cleaning and disinfecting high-traffic areas, and other steps are being taken or considered to further protect workers,” the contractor said.
Y-12 said it does not perform COVID-19 testing at the Oak Ridge plant. If workers have symptoms of COVID-19, they are directed to their primary care physician, CNS said.
“Employees are asked to contact their site medical office if they have been tested and whether the result was positive or negative,” CNS said. “Return to work for those who test positive for COVID-19 will be coordinated with the treating medical provider, the local health department, and site medical.”
The testing is done off site, and results and demographics are captured and reported through the Tennessee Department of Health, CNS said.
On Wednesday, the state health department reported that 2,683 patients have tested positive for COVID-19 in Tennessee, and 24 people have died and 200 have been hospitalized. One hundred thirty-seven patients have recovered.
Ten cases have been diagnosed in Anderson County, although the health department doesn’t release specific information about where those patients live within the county.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
You can contact John Huotari, owner and publisher of Oak Ridge Today, at (865) 951-9692 or [email protected]
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