The Secret City: The Dilapidation of Y-12

In the hills of Tennessee lies the town of Oak Ridge, which is historically known now as “The Secret City.” It was one of three sites for the Manhattan Project back in the forties. Oak Ridge was created in 1974, and became the building site for the Y-12 Uranium Enrichment Facility. This facility was vital for research and development during war time. The employees at Y-12 researched and processed bomb grade uranium for use in the gun-type bomb named “little boy” that was detonated over Hiroshima in 1945. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “Manhattan Project engineers had to quickly build a town to accommodate 30,000 workers as well as build the enormously complex plant.” The town and the Y-12 facility was built so quickly, that it appears proper research and planning was not fully executed, resulting in chemical exposure and mercury contamination.

The buildings of Y-12 are deteriorating at a rapid pace due to improper upkeep and typical aging. There are concerns that the decaying facility will continue to expose workers and the public to dangerous radiation and chemical exposure. According to Frank Alvarez of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, “The Y-12 National Security Complex is the poster child for much of what ails the weapons complex. It is a massive, decaying empire that in many cases does its work poorly or dangerously, or both.” Concrete and plaster ceilings are letting in water that is becoming stagnant and sedentary. Moisture from the water leaks is creating an overgrowth of mold on the interior of the buildings. Pipes are corroding causing chemical leaks and asbestos is exposed throughout the facility. The aging and neglect of the area has led to multiple health issues, contamination issues and chemical exposures. Demolishing the once historic facility and properly disposing all contaminated materials is the only way to keep the hazardous contents of these buildings contained.

The Y-12 infrastructure is well over seventy years old and needs either a major modernized overhaul or a full-blown demolition of all the unsafe buildings. One of the largest problems is the deterioration and crumbling of the original buildings. A lot of this is due to not only regular aging, but the outdated building supplies that were used in the forties. According to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA), “the Department of Energy’s own Safety Survey in 1993 said, critical facilities would not be expected to survive a design-basis earthquake or a tornado.” Fire hazards are also a huge issue. The area that surrounds the Y-12 compound is heavily treed and very remote. These concerns leave the facilities and its contents vulnerable to natural disasters, improper containment and the risk of radioactive contamination if one of these buildings were to collapse or catch fire.

Groundwater and soil contamination is another cause for concern. According to Brooks and Southworth of Oak Ridge National Laboratories, “within a thirteen-year time span from 1950-1963, about 3% of the Mercury Hg was lost to the air, soil and rock under facilities, and East Fork Poplar Creek which originates in the plant site.” Mercury contamination has been a long-standing problem at the facility, with many of the deteriorating buildings having some form of mercury contamination. Though the mercury is considered a legacy waste problem now, there are still ongoing health concerns such as cancer, kidney issues and radiation exposure.

Uranium leaks are also an ongoing concern at Y-12. Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported in June 2016 that the “Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said there are 47 new or previously identified leaks awaiting repair inside Building 9212.” These leaks have caused workers inside the facility to be exposed to radioactive contamination. Apparently, the leaks are a common occurrence and a rigorous maintenance schedule is required to keep the facility and its workers out of harm’s way. According to the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, “Y-12 has deteriorated past the point of safe operation.” By allowing these buildings to still be operational, the Department of Energy and the Y-12 National Security Complex is risking the health and well-being of its employees, neighboring citizens, wildlife and the environment.

There are many concerned citizens and groups that oppose Y-12, such as the OREPA. The OREPA website states, “their focus is stopping nuclear weapons production at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and protecting the environment threatened by legacy and ongoing activities at the Oak Ridge Nuclear Reservation.” This movement was established in 1989 to keep the public informed on restoration activities, the production/dismantlement of nuclear weapons and disposition of highly enriched uranium, and public health issues (“Foundation for Sustainability”). They will continue to educate and inform the public on the environmental issues that are threatening Oak Ridge and its citizens.

The only way to properly contain any further health risks to Oak Ridge and its surrounding cities is to remove all stored radioactive materials, mitigate, demolish and properly dispose of all contaminated building materials. The materials used back in the 1940s to build the Y-12 facility did not have the same quality and safety standards that today’s modern materials have. Aging wood, concrete ceilings and asbestos are only part of the outdated materials in question. The structural integrity of the buildings was not designed to withstand the lack of upkeep that has occurred over the years. The responsible thing to do is remove all stored radioactive and nuclear materials and demolish the compound. By properly removing and disposing of all contaminated materials, the risk of catastrophic nuclear or radioactive contamination is decreased exponentially.

Once the area has been deemed decontaminated and safe, a new advanced and modernized facility should be built to house and store the nuclear and radioactive materials. The facility should be built with the most advanced materials and should consist of a fully contained structure that would last well into the future. It would need to have the capacity to withstand natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes and forest fires. The building materials would need to be water and fire resistant to ensure that the materials stored inside stayed protected and secure always.

The main storage facility would need to be built underground or into the side of the mountain to fully contain it from foreign and domesticated terrorist threats. It should be equipped with the most advanced technology that would fully contain the compound in case of malfunction or accidental contamination. The systems in place would be able to secure the materials, close off any area that has been contaminated and send the contamination through an emergency containment system. This would ensure that no harmful materials could seep into the air and expose the public.

Proper containment of all nuclear and radioactive materials is also of utmost concern. A lot of the equipment that houses these materials are highly outdated and will need to be updated. Nuclear engineers, safety engineers, environmental engineers, regulatory specialists and security specialists would need to come together to create the most efficient, secure and highly advanced nuclear containment system. According to the World Nuclear Association, the system would need to be made from

[a] high-quality design and construction, equipment which prevents operational disturbances or human failures and errors developing into problems, comprehensive monitoring and regular testing to detect equipment or operator failures, redundant and diverse systems to control damage to the fuel and prevent significant radioactive releases and a provision to confine the effects of severe fuel damage (or any other problem) to the plant itself. (“Safety of Plants”)

There are two other key components that I would find important to add to the design. First, I would install a highly sensitive climate controlled system that would help keep all radioactive materials cool and lower the risk of potential over-heating.  Secondly, I would add a state-of-the-art ventilation system that would take all harmful particles and contain them automatically before they could be expelled into the environment. These design elements together would create a safer containment system for all nuclear and radioactive materials and lower the potential hazards of leaks and chemical exposures.

Security would need to be of utmost importance. The security system would be designed with the most advanced encrypted technology and would be the standard in safely guarding our communities and its people from accidental exposure, contamination and threat. It would encompass a highly sensitive detection system that monitors air flow and air purity. Security measures would need to be rigorous with not only guarded personnel, but laser eye technology for entry in and out of buildings, advanced voice recognition system and a high-tech surveillance system with cameras equipped with infrared and heat seeking capabilities in the event of an attack or a black out.

It is vital that all the surrounding soil and waterways be consistently tested and rigorously mitigated for Mercury exposure. According to a Y-12 National Security Complex report titled Mercury Cleanup Efforts Intensified, Diane McDaniel of Y‑12’s Environmental Management Program was quoted as saying “The immediate goal remains limiting the mercury concentrations in Y‑12’s surface water and remediating the local environment. Ultimately, the plan is to remove legacy materials from contaminated facilities, isolate the structures from the rest of the plant before they are dismantled and demolished, and then remediate the underlying soil.” The executives of Y-12 are fully aware that there is still an issue with Mercury contamination and rigorous steps need to be taken to clean up the problem. The contaminated areas need to have all soil that tests positive for Mercury removed, mitigated and placed in a hazardous waste containment area to minimize risk of future exposure.

 A water treatment system would need to be installed that would treat all water that flows in and out of the facility. Treating the water before it goes through the public water system or into outlying natural waterways will help ensure that the legacy waste from post Mercury exposure continues to be monitored. It will also allow for the monitoring of all waste products that might accidently exit through the water system. If proper precautions are taken in advance, there is a better chance of not exposing the public to any further contamination. Without proper clean up, mitigation, ongoing testing and the installation of a water treatment facility, Mercury in the soil and water system will continue to pose health risk to workers and citizens for years to come.

The Department of Energy and the Y-12 National Security Complex need to come together with engineers, contractors, scientists and the public to make an informed decision and create a design that would be cost-effective to deconstruct, demolish and rebuild the historical site of the “Manhattan Project.” The facility is now in the stages of disrepair and dilapidation. By continuing to let this complex sit idle and erode further, Y-12 is a ticking time bomb that is headed for nuclear disaster. Those who live in Oak Ridge will be some of the most affected if something catastrophic ever occurs at this facility or one of its nuclear storage buildings. Natural disasters or a terror attack could destroy Y-12 in an instant, suddenly impacting thousands of lives. Action needs to be taken now to ensure the health and safety of us all.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Frank. “Y12: Poster Child for A Dysfunctional Weapons Complex.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 4 Aug. 2014,

“Atomic Heritage Foundation.” Atomic Heritage Foundation,

Brooks, S C, and G R Southworth. “History of Mercury Use and Environmental Contamination at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2011, Environmental Sciences Division – Oak Ridge National Laboratories

“Foundation for Global Sustainability,”

Mercury Cleanup Effort Intensified., 11 Feb. 2013. Volume 9. Issue 2. Y12 Report.

Munger, Frank. “Leaks Persist at Y-12’s Old Uranium Hub Despite Fix-It Campaign.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 22 June 2016,

“Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance – Abolish nuclear weapons; build nonviolent community.” Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance RSS,

“Safety of Plants and Nuclear Power Reactors.” World Nuclear Association,

  Y-12 National Security Complex. “Mercury Cleanup Efforts Intensified.” Mercury Cleanup Efforts Intensified, 2nd ed., vol. 9, 2013.


A first generation college student, Susanne Estep entered college at the age of forty two to pursue a degree in Psychology. She resides on a small horse farm in Colorado with her husband and many animals. She hopes to use equine assisted psychotherapy to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and individuals with drug and alcohol addiction when she graduates.

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