What sits behind fence at "The Secret City" is no longer a secret, but the work done there is coming full circle. A recent unprecedented security breach at Y-12 has raised questions about operations from Oak Ridge all the way to Washington D.C.
We associate the facility with the production of nuclear weapons used in the United States efforts in World War II, and later in the Cold War. Work going on there today benefits more than the military.
"The main mission at Y-12 is still maintaining a safe and secure stockpile for our nation," said Program Manager Gerald DeVault.
The Y-12 National Security Complex stores the nation's reserve of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a main ingredient of nuclear weapons.
The site's past, for some, is a critical part of the U.S. victory in World War II.
"We produced the first uranium for the first bomb," said DeVault.
For others, the site is steeped in controversy. In an act of anti-nuclear weapon protest, three people cut through a fence in the early morning hours of July 28, 2012. They reached the "high security" area that houses the HEU.
While work done today at Y-12 continues to involve defense, DeVault explains that offense is another goal, "You've got to retrieve as much of the scrap as you can to ensure that it doesn't get in the wrong hands."
Devault is talking about Y-12's role in the U.S. effort to reclaim HEU from around the world. Most recently a team traveled to Mexico, and brought that country's weapons-grade uranium back to Oak Ridge.
"You're taking that HEU off the open market for good," said DeVault.
Devalt said other teams are in the process of dismantling three of the United States' defense systems. Crews convert the HEU they recover into low enriched uranium (LEU).
"We supply over 1,000 kgs of LEU to research reactors internationally, and that's as close as reactors in Canada, and as far away as in Indonesia," explained DeVault.
Y-12 distributes LEU for commercial use. Although it's not strong enough to use in a bomb, doctors sometimes use small amounts in medical imaging and treatments.
"That medical isotope is used in 50,000 diagnoses a day for heart disease and for cancer treatments," said DeVault.
Y-12's biggest project is for the United States Navy, he explained, "We're the supplier for the Nuclear Navy for the fuel that they use to power their fleet, which includes submarines and aircraft carriers."
Details of Y-12's work with the Navy are confidential, much like the purpose of Y-12 plant was kept decades ago. The difference today is the mission is reducing the nuclear stockpile, instead of building it up.
Security and emergency preparedness at Y-12, and plans for the new Uranium Processing Facility project will be discussed at a public hearing set for October 2. The Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is holding the meeting at the Knoxville Convention Center.