Nuclear Waste: Our Far-Flung Nuclear Weapons Factories Haven't Built a Bomb since 1992. One Lone Republican Wants to Shut Them Down

By Roth, Zachary | The Washington Monthly, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Waste: Our Far-Flung Nuclear Weapons Factories Haven't Built a Bomb since 1992. One Lone Republican Wants to Shut Them Down


Roth, Zachary, The Washington Monthly


In 1942, the United States government began creating a secret city. On 59,000 acres in the hills of eastern Tennessee, it built a complex--one of three nationwide--dedicated to the production of materials for an atomic weapon. From the start, the very existence of the new city, named Oak Ridge after a nearby mountain ridge, was shrouded in mystery. Though at its peak of production during World War II, Oak Ridge used one-seventh of all the electricity produced in the United States and had a population of 75,000--making it the fifth largest city in Tennessee--it didn't appear on maps until 1949. Residents were required to wear identification badges whenever they went out of the house, and the Oak Ridge high school football team played only road games. But there was good reason for the clandestine measures: By late 1943, Oak Ridge's Y-12 plant was using electromagnetism to create the highly enriched uranium that would be used in the "Little Boy" atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, helping to bring the war to an end.

For Oak Ridge, those were the glory days, and the city works hard to keep their memory alive. A museum in town educates a few stray tourists on Oak Ridge's starring role in the development of the bomb. Visitors to the complex are given a CD-ROM--"Discover World War Two's Secret City"--whose cover shows Oak Ridgers excitedly displaying newspapers that hail the end of the war. Last June, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the event, Oak Ridge held a "Secret City Festival," which featured, among other attractions, the opening to the public of Y-12's Beta-3 building, which had been used during the war to separate isotopes, and which still contains crates bearing the date of the plant's first year in operation. "Looks just like it did in 1943," says Bill Wilburn, the public relations representative for BWXT, a private contractor that runs Y-12, as we look down on Beta-3 from a nearby ridge. Oak Ridge's starring role in history continued into the Cold War, when the arms race with the Soviet Union required rapid weapons production. Indeed, driving around the vast facility with the racks felt vaguely like being in one of those military movies from the 1950s. "It's like stepping back into history," notes Steve Wyatt, Y-12's public affairs manager.

Unfortunately, history is about the only thing going for Y-12 these days. The United States hasn't built a new nuclear weapon since the early '90s, and that's left the weapons plant's 6,000 employees with little to do. Today, they are literally moving material from one spot to another, spending around $300 million to transfer Y-12's store of radioactive metal from six separate on-site locations to one more modern and secure facility, currently under construction. Y-12 lists its main role as ensuring that the components used in our existing stockpile of weapons remain safe and reliable--an important task, to be sure, but not one capable of providing a long-term mission for Y-12.

Even the plant's physical appearance suggests its better days are behind it. An unmistakable air of ennui and decay hangs about the place. A few solitary workers shuffle from one building to another. Many of the original structures--their blocky, red-brick style and low ceilings characteristic of 1940s government architecture--remain in use, despite the appearance of decay. "It's a lot of old facilities, no question," says Wyatt.

Y-12's fusty aura is indicative of a broader problem. Our nuclear weapons complex was designed for the needs of a different age, and has struggled to reinvent itself for the 21st century. Almost 20 years after we built our last new nuclear weapon, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy with a budget of $9 billion per year, continues to operate eight separate facilities, employing over 36,000 people, and offering an unnecessarily large number of targets to terrorists. …

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