COVID-19 Hits Y-12


COVID-19 Hits Y-12

Several employees at the nuclear weapons plant have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and others are in self-isolation as a precaution.

by scott barker • April 2, 2020
Jack Case Center at the Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12 image).

Multiple employees at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and are in isolation, a spokeswoman for the nuclear weapons plant confirmed on Wednesday. 

Y-12 is "mission critical" for the NSSA and operations will continue "to the maximum extent possible" during the coronavirus crisis.

An undisclosed number of other employees have also been sent home and are in self-isolation as a precaution.

“Employees who tested positive and those who have been in contact with affected employees are self-isolating per the CDC’s guidelines,” said Kathryn King, who is in charge of media relations at Y-12 for Consolidated Nuclear Security, the plant’s managing contractor.  

“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,” she said.

A letter sent to Y-12 employees recently stated six workers at the nuclear weapons plant have tested positive, according to people who have seen the letter, but King said she could not confirm the number. She also said she could not disclose the number of employees sent home as a precautionary measure. Y-12 has more than 5,000 employees, including contractors.

King did not say where in the massive plant the employees work or what their jobs entail. Much of the work at Y-12 is classified. She said she also didn’t have information on whether the employees were supervisors or hourly workers. 

Mike Thompson, president of the Atomic Trades & Labor Council in Oak Ridge, which represents hourly employees at Y-12, said he could not discuss the letter but said none of the workers the council represents has tested positive for COVID-19 to his knowledge. “We are doing everything in our power to keep our people safe,” Thompson said.

King said Y-12’s procedure when notified of a confirmed case of COVID-19 is to immediately interview the employee and supervisors to determine who the person had been in contact with for at least two days prior to the development of symptoms. Plant officials then will notify people who have been in close contact with the employee. Workers who might have been exposed are sent home for 14 days of quarantine, King said. 

Employees have “increased cleaning and disinfecting high-traffic areas, and other steps are being taken or considered to further protect workers,” she said.

King said Y-12 is instituting flexible scheduling, encouraging virtual meetings via Skype and teleconferencing, and allowing some employees to work from home, though she emphasized that no classified work is permitted outside the plant and its secure systems.

On March 20, the Defense Department identified Y-12 as part of the “Defense Industrial Base,” and the National Nuclear Security Administration considers work at the plant to be “mission essential.” That means work at the Department of Energy facility must continue “to the maximum extent possible” during the coronavirus crisis, King said.

Workers at Y-12 fabricate and refurbish parts for every nuclear warhead in the United States arsenal, and dismantle weapons as part of the nation’s non-proliferation efforts. 

Y-12 stores the nation’s entire supply of weapons-grade uranium and is the site of the state’s largest construction project in history, the $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility. The project is a vital upgrade to the 77-year-old plant.

Y-12 occupies an important place in America’s nuclear weapons history. Built as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II, the plant produced the enriched uranium used in the first atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1942. 

King said the outbreak hasn’t forced a pause or alteration in work at the plant. “We have to meet our national security commitment to the federal government and the U.S. military,” she said.