Uranium Fire at Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee: Concerns and Queries

The recent incident of fire, involving uranium, broke out at a National Security Complex in Tennessee, US a place said to be the birthplace of the nuclear bomb. It is evident from the incident that there was a lack of adequate safety measures and put into question the US safety mechanism. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) claimed that the fire was caused by a metal form of uranium. Ellen Smith, a councilwoman for Oak Ridge, conducted research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on radioactivity and its effects on the environment. 

Her research findings show that the metal form of uranium they used at Y-12 was easily flammable and probably had low radioactivity. Because of its chemical properties, uranium metal is combustible and easily catches fire. It basically consists of uranium-238, an extremely long-lived isotope of uranium. The NNSA claims that neither the general public nor anything outside of Y-12 is being impacted by the fire. Federal authorities report that there were no injuries among the staff members and that everyone has been evacuated. Eventually, if any such incident had occurred in Pakistan what would be the world’s reaction? Wouldn’t the world especially the US put more pressure on Pakistan? Threats of imposing new sanctions would become then the order of the day. Like it or not, we witness a pin-drop silence from the IAEA and the west in regard to the newly occurred uranium breakout in the US.

It is important to know that Metallic Uranium is a mixture of less radioactive U-238 and highly radioactive Uranium-235 in its natural state. After being extracted, the remaining material is depleted uranium, which is used in reactors and nuclear weapons.  Like lead or mercury, it is a deadly heavy metal, though it emits very little radiation. Ostensibly, a study says a lot about the deadly causes of metallic uranium that how it affects the surroundings if it is used or any incident occurred. The NNSA claimed about the reaction of the metallic uranium and how easily it catches fire. The question here is, could it be gone worse? Who will be held accountable for it if this happens again? And most importantly didn’t US take lessons from the previous nuclear accidents? Nuclear accidents have occurred in the US in the past as well. Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio was forced to shut down for 24 months on Feb. 16, 2002 due to the corrosion of a reactor vessel head. The incident on Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania, following its partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, was the most serious to date. According to experts, the 2 million or so nearby residents at the time of the accident were exposed to very little radiation.

The above-mentioned nuclear accidents only in the US explain how a little radiation or carelessness of the working staff can put people’s lives in danger and can lead to a chaotic environment because nuclear energy is said to be for safety purposes. Similarly, if the emergency response of the National Security complex had not responded in time it would have caused much more destruction to the 200 employees and the people living near Oak Ridge. When it comes to nuclear energy limitations, the US has expressed strictly its stance to the world specifically to Pakistan. For the sake of safety measures or precautions, Pakistan has been pointed several times from acquiring and using nuclear weapons. Where it has been almost 25 remarkable years since Pakistan went nuclear, and no such nuclear damage has occurred to date. 

Although, it should be the US to be opposed to and give strict safety measures about the safe use of nuclear energy because all those accidents that took place in the US are clear examples of negligence. Moreover, in the case of Iran, the US has shown a lot of biases and restrictions on the use and acquisition of nuclear energy, and many safety measures and safeguards have been given to Iran in terms of acquiring uranium. Terms and conditions have been set by the IAEA and US for Iran for acquiring a nuclear weapon. 

Now the question arises here, why has there been no response or proper investigation of the incident? Isn’t the accident life-threatening enough to be aware of? Or no it’s just the first nuclear accident that happened in the United States of America? Who would take the liability for the incident it’s also said in the world nuclear association about nuclear damage that if any damage occurs due to nuclear energy, the state will be liable for it. 

The management of nuclear accidents is a particular area of nuclear safety research that needs to be given the utmost priority by the international community. The international community must also close all the gaps that could lead to future nuclear incidents. Most importantly, cooperative initiatives must play a significant role in managing the effects of accidents as well as taking additional precautions. The IAEA needs to develop a mechanism between nuclear-weapon states as a required standard to help prevent similar nuclear incidents in the future.

[Photo by Department of Energy Oak Ridge, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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