The protest by an 83-year-old nun is the least of the problems at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Unsafe, obsolete, and insecure, it is a nuclear disaster waiting to happen. The Y-12 Security Complex is the poster child for much of what ails the decaying weapons complex across the U.S. Although Y-12 has not produced weapons for some 25 years, its annual budgets have increased by nearly 50 percent since 1997, to more than $1 billion a year.
"In early June 1995, while I visited the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a small aircraft flew over the site, dropping about 100 leaflets that local police described as 'pornographic' and 'libelous.' Word had it that a spurned lover had decided to get even by depositing sexually explicit photos at a Y-12 employee’s workplace. Witnesses reported the plane dove to 150 feet above the weapons plant, in violation of federal aviation rules.
At the time, I was an advisor to Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, and it disturbed me that this stunt was treated merely as a racy instance of littering. I had just toured the site’s main storage facility for highly enriched uranium (HEU)—a 51 year-old wooden warehouse manifestly unsuited to store highly flammable fissile material. A fire at the warehouse, which contained one of the largest stores of weapons grade uranium in the world, could have meant a national radioactive disaster; the ability of a small airplane to fly over Y-12 graphically illustrated how vulnerable the site was to aeronautical accident, or attack.
The United States halted production of new nuclear weapons in 1989, with the end of the Cold War. But the US nuclear weapons complex—composed of eight key facilities that have an annual budget exceeding $8 billion—has stumbled on, in the form of a massive, decaying empire that in many cases does its work poorly or dangerously, or both. The Y-12 National Security Complex is the poster child for much of what ails the weapons complex. Although Y-12 has not produced weapons for some 25 years, its annual budgets have increased by nearly 50 percent since 1997, to more than $1 billion a year."