Y-12 Blog

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2023 - 7:51am

Bill Clark poses next to a glove box similar to one he worked with in the 1950’s
Bill Clark poses next to a glove box similar to one he worked with in the 1950’s

June 16, 1958: a day that is seared into Y-12’s history as the nation’s first nuclear criticality accident in a process facility. As the only remaining survivor of this accident, Bill Clark, now 90 years old, remembers it distinctly, and he recently returned to Y-12 for the first time since the mid-1960’s to share his story and to see how far the site has come in preventing similar accidents.

In 1958, Clark (referred to as “Employee H” in reports) worked as a chemical operator in the C1 Wing of Building 9212. On the day of the event, he was assigned to operate four EK evaporators approximately 50 feet from where the criticality occurred. Unbeknownst to him and others working that day, uranyl nitrate had been leaking through a valve in a temporary line connecting B1 and C1 wings.

At the time of the event, approximately 2:05 p.m., operators in C1 Wing were finishing an extensive inventory and cleanout process that took multiple shifts to complete. The final step before placing the system back into operation was to drain leak-test water from the pipes and safe tanks. However, the uranyl nitrate that had been leaking into the overhead pipes from B1 drained first, instead of water.

Clark recalls the moment the solution reached a sufficient level to react.

“I saw lightning bars zip-zip-zip across the ceiling going every which way,” he said. “I thought it was the welders and didn’t think anything of it. Then a fog started to descend in the room and the most God awful smell you can think of—worse than rotten eggs. That’s when the alarms went off.”

Clark’s story, and his return to Y-12, provide a stark reminder of the hazardous materials used every day across the Nuclear Security Enterprise—and the safety changes that have been put in place to prevent something similar from occurring today.

“The 1958 accident was an unfortunate event, but we learned a lot from it,” CNS Chief Nuclear Criticality Engineer Chris Haught said. “First and foremost we learned to keep large geometries out of areas where we process enriched uranium solutions. We also learned the importance of procedural control and conduct of operations. Most importantly, we learned to evaluate minor events and implement corrective actions to prevent a major event.” Fortunately for Clark he exited out the back door of C1 Wing instead of leaving his normal route, which would have taken him directly past the drum.

Everyone was instructed to start walking, Clark recalled, and they did not stop until reaching the Oak Ridge Skyway Drive-In Theater, roughly where Hobby Lobby is today. After sitting under a tree for multiple hours, Clark was instructed to get in line to have the film strip on his badge checked.

“That’s how they figured out where the accident happened,” Clark said. “We all started showing up with our film badges. I was 10 feet from the film checker when the meter hit the peg.”

It was that moment when Clark learned he had been exposed.

“I didn’t know I had been in a criticality when I was sitting under the tree,” he said. “I hadn’t felt nothing. I only knew what I had observed.”

Clark was rushed to the hospital for treatment.

“They gave me the most thorough scrub down of my life,” he said. “It felt like they were taking my skin off. They took blood from us. They took bone marrow from us.”

Exhaustive tests were done trying to determine how bad the accident was. In total, eight employees were exposed to high doses of radiation that day and all suffered long-term health effects including numerous forms of cancer. Clark endured multiple operations. To this day, he maintains a strict diet and takes a handful of medications every day to help him live. The radiation dosage levels received for each employee vary, but Clark accepts a 2002 estimate of 165 rem.

“We learned a lot of lessons from the 1958 accident,” Vice President of Mission Engineering Tony Boser said. “We’ve incorporated those lessons into our overall approach to safety at Y-12 through our procedures, our training, and in our engineering controls. All of these are designed to prevent another incident. But we can’t stop there. As we transform our site to meet our future mission demands, we are designing our facilities and our processes with the latest and most robust techniques to ensure safety in all aspects of our work. Both for our employees and our community at large.”

Following the interview, Clark re-lived his time at Y-12 with a tour of the plant. He shared stories of his work in Buildings 9201-4, 9201-5, 9204-2, and 9212. As a piece of advice to employees doing similar work today, Clark stressed the importance of wearing proper PPE.

Bill Clark is welcomed to Y-12 by NNSA Production Office employees nearly 65 years after being exposed to high levels of radiation during the 1958 Nuclear Criticality Accident.
Bill Clark is welcomed to Y-12 by NNSA Production Office employees nearly 65 years after being exposed to high levels of radiation during the 1958 Nuclear Criticality Accident.

Bill Clark recalls his experiences during the 1958 Nuclear Criticality Accident
Bill Clark recalls his experiences during the 1958 Nuclear Criticality Accident

Bill Clark tours Building 9731, the first building complete at the Y-12 National Security Complex in 1943.
Bill Clark tours Building 9731, the first building complete at the Y-12 National Security Complex in 1943.

Bill Clark discusses work he did in a glovebox similar to what was used during the 1950’s.
Bill Clark discusses work he did in a glovebox similar to what was used during the 1950’s.

Bill Clark overlooks the Y-12 Plant while sharing stories of his work in various buildings
Bill Clark overlooks the Y-12 Plant while sharing stories of his work in various buildings

Building 9212 C1 Wing following the 1958 Nuclear Criticality Accident
Building 9212 C1 Wing following the 1958 Nuclear Criticality Accident

Re-enactment of employee “A” position in proximity of the drum at the time of the incident.
Re-enactment of employee “A” position in proximity of the drum at the time of the incident.

Re-enactment of positions employees in proximity of the drum at the time of the incident.
Re-enactment of positions employees in proximity of the drum at the time of the incident.

Posted: Wednesday, June 7, 2023 - 7:38am

Jeff Hankins (center) now calls nearly two dozen of his former students coworkers.
Jeff Hankins (center) now calls nearly two dozen of his former students coworkers.

Jeff Hankins has been a Y-12 certified welding inspector since 2021. He is considered a subject matter expert in the field of welding and weld inspection. His willingness and demonstrated ability to work with welders, inspectors, and engineers have made him a valued addition to the Y-12 team. However, he has had an impact at Y-12 long before he started coming through the gates each day.

It’s his interpersonal skills that set him apart, according to his supervisor, Donnie Cardwell, who said Hankins has a positive impact on everyone he meets.

“Jeff has a student-oriented teaching style and the ability to adjust his approach to suit the individual,” Cardwell said.

That teaching style is well earned. For years, Hankins taught welding at Oak Ridge High School. His former students number in the hundreds. At Y-12, more than 20 workers started their welding career paths learning from him in high school.

“I think I was meant to be a teacher. That is what I am,” Hankins said. “But I am a teacher who possesses other skills that enable me to earn a good living.”

Hankins said that his goal at Y-12 is to do as good a job as possible and that he is content where he is, although he admits he misses teaching. Cardwell and others who work with Hankins will tell you that he may not be a teacher by trade any longer, but he is still teaching.

Among his former students is Matthew Spangler, who works for Y-12 Infrastructure.

Spangler said he still remembers welding class and how Hankins was not just a teacher but also a father figure to him. Spangler’s father died when he was a young teen, and he admits he did not handle it well.

“I was on a downward spiral and running with a tough crowd,” Spangler said. “Jeff held me to a higher standard. He offered me a way out of the direction I was headed.”

More of Hankins’ former students who now work at Y-12 tell similar stories.

Brandon Collier, a production supervisor in Special Materials Operations, said, “His teaching style got through to a bunch of knuckleheaded kids with no sense of direction for where they wanted to be after high school.”

Another former student is Matthew Gwyn, who works as a welder. He said, “Wow, I could write a book on all of the moments and experiences I had with Jeff that led me to be the man I am today.

“There were so many of us in that class that had been forgotten and abandoned by the system, but Jeff saw us all as his kids, and we knew and felt it — even the troubled ones whose future was a drug overdose or jail. He showed us there was more to our lives than what we saw in our broken homes and that we could be better.”

Erica Heckman, a welder for East Mission Support, met Hankins when she was a freshman. She said Hankins was the one person in her life who believed in her.

“I was a kid in school who teachers said would never be successful because I was not a bookworm. But Mr. Hankins disagreed — and told me so,” Heckman said. “He encouraged me to listen and learn from him, and work hard, and I would be successful. He taught me that I could work with my hands and make a good living.”
Hankins is humbled by the praise.

“Outside of my family, there is nothing in my life I am prouder of than seeing my former students working in a trade I taught them, supporting their families, and earning the money I told them they could,” he said.

“Teaching was the best job I ever had — not the most lucrative, but the most rewarding.”

Hankins’ impact on Y-12’s mission as a weld inspector is multiplied through the work of his former students, who he is proud to now call coworkers.

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2023 - 12:59pm

David Turner

Duty. Honor. Country. It is a theme in David Turner’s life. From achieving Eagle Scout status as a young man to a 35-year military career concluding as a highly decorated retired brigadier general, Turner’s goals often derive from his desire to lead and serve.

“I feel as if I’m repeating that pattern in the work I’m now doing,” said Turner, who recently assumed the job of Vice President of Operations Support. “The mission we do for our country is so critical. It’s an honor for me to be a part of it.”

But Turner readily admits that he was not always the mastermind of his own destiny. Charting the course of his life has often involved the advice of mentors and teachers who saw something in him that he did not.

“You want to align yourself with people who have an interest in you,” he said. “They can see things in you that you may not and help you maximize whatever that may be.”

Who influenced you most in your life?
My grandmother was, without a doubt, a huge influence in my life. She was my Yoda. She was incredibly knowledgeable about so many things in life. I also had two mentors in my military career that were instrumental in guiding me. They still are involved in my life, and I continue to value their input.

What advice would you give to young people who don’t know exactly what they want to do?
Be open to advice and suggestion. I didn’t even know what an Eagle Scout was, but my best friend’s mother told me I would be one. I went home and looked it up, and I decided that I actually would become an Eagle Scout. I not only made Eagle Scout, but I held every possible leadership level in the Boy Scouts. I have never regretted listening to that suggestion. I also believe the Science, Technical, Engineering, and Mathematical (STEM) programs offer so many ways to learn about potential futures

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2023 - 7:52am

Jonathan Fleury, a section manager in Fabrication at Y-12
Jonathan Fleury, a section manager in Fabrication at Y-12, began his site tenure in an apprenticeship program, one gateway to a career at Pantex or Y-12.

Jonathan Fleury enjoys maintaining highly complex machines that craft material to exacting specifications. A section manager in Fabrication at Y 12 and a former Marine, Fleury has held various positions maintaining equipment at the site, where he appreciates a good challenge.

“I got out of the Marines and saw a newspaper ad. I applied for an apprenticeship program and was one of the first 50 people they hired,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like this before.”

The synergy of challenge and opportunity is alluring to many potential employees, explained Ricky Aiken, senior manager of Mission Systems and Integration at Y-12.

“With the advancements in technology, many industries are now relying on complex electrical systems that require skilled electricians to install, maintain, and repair them,” he said. “The rise of electric cars and renewable energy sources has also increased the demand for electricians with specialized knowledge in these areas. This truly goes for all skilled tradespeople like pipefitters, outside machinists, machinists, and carpenters, which remain in demand. Pursuing a career in a skilled trade is a viable option for those looking for job security and a stable career path. You have a skill you’re going to be able to use no matter where you go.”

A Y-12 apprenticeship is just one gateway to a career at Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS), which manages and operates Y-12 and the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. At Pantex, the AmTech Career Academy trains high school students who can then pursue a degree at nearby Amarillo College before finally applying what they learned in the Pantex workforce.

The partnership between Pantex and AmTech positions students as future production technicians, according to Zuleyma Carruba Rogel, a Pantex recruiter.

“If a student has that program credential, they qualify to test here,” she explained. “From there, it’s really where their talent takes them.”

The partnership is part of a long-term strategy, and Carruba-Rogel and her peers recognize the potential promise the collaboration holds for CNS, which gains a better-prepared future workforce, and the students themselves.

“Some of these students can graduate … out earning their parents,” she said.

Aiken agreed the opportunities are many for potential employee and company alike.

“Recruiting and training the next generation for skilled trades positions is beneficial for both the individual and the industry. Training young people for skilled trades jobs is essential for addressing the skills gap that exists in many industries. Many skilled trades jobs require specialized training and knowledge that is not easily transferable,” Aiken said. “By recruiting and training the next generation, Y-12 can ensure that we have a skilled workforce that can meet our country’s mission needs, both now and in the future.”

Dave Thomas, a high explosives manufacturing supervisor at Pantex, appreciates the benefit of workers who bring a higher degree of skill from their first day on the job.

“Our mission to assemble and test the nation’s nuclear deterrent demands that we seek out and retain only the finest men and women within the manufacturing world, whether it be for formulation, machining, or direct assembly,” Thomas said.

Part of that demand for the best and brightest is in hiring those who know the latest in technology.

“Since technology is changing on a daily basis, we have a responsibility to stay on top of the job market and bring those folks into our family,” Thomas said.

Apprenticeship programs are not just for new employees, either.

“By offering training programs and career-development opportunities, Y-12 can retain valuable employees and help them achieve their career goal. Providing opportunities for career development and advancement can also improve employee morale and job satisfaction,” Aiken said. “When employees feel that their employer is invested in their success and growth, they are more likely to feel satisfied with their job and be motivated to perform well.”

Posted: Monday, May 22, 2023 - 7:48am

Pantexan Chafin H.
Chafin H. pulls double duty when it comes to serving others; he works at Pantex and is a lieutenant colonel (select) in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

Once a month, Chafin H. loads up his Suburban and points the truck north toward Colorado Springs.

Chafin is a project manager in Construction Projects at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, but he’s also a lieutenant colonel (select) in the U.S. Air Force Reserve at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. And while the trip usually takes about 6 hours and covers more than 350 miles, there’s not a lot of distance between the two missions he performs: National security is the priority.

“For U.S. veterans, a career at Pantex or Y-12 is a continued service to our nation. By working at Pantex or Y-12, we help ensure the reliability of our nation’s greatest deterrence against authoritarian aggression—the U.S. nuclear triad,” said Chafin, who has been an instructor pilot in the Air Force Reserve for 8 years after 9 years of active-duty service.

Pantex and the Y-12 National Security Complex, which are managed and operated by Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS), often offer sought-after vocations for those who have or continue to serve in our armed forces. It’s no surprise that 29% of the Pantex workforce and 18% of the Y-12 workforce have former military experience.

Like Chafin, more than 30 employees remain active in the armed forces, often through the reserves, serving double duty for the nation.

“Serving in the military and working a full-time civilian job is tough and very busy,” said U.S. Navy Reservist and Y-12 Quality Technical Procedures Specialist Scott B. “We are always on the go, but most of us wouldn’t change a thing. I am very proud to have the opportunity to wear our nation’s uniform, but we are just regular people who have had the opportunity to help our country the best way we know how.”

In recognition of Armed Forces Day, celebrated on May 20, some employees shared how their roles at the sites allow them to continue service to our nation.

“The operation and functionality of our sites have a direct impact on national security,” said Jonathan C., an engineer in the Facility Design Group at Y-12 and a first lieutenant in the Tennessee Air National Guard. “If the operational status of the facilities and the sites is impacted, then we may miss key objectives, which have second and third order effects.”

“In the Army, I dealt with nuclear targeting, nuclear disablement, and counterproliferation,” said Jimmy M., a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, who is a SkillBridge intern working in Y-12 Product Manufacturing Engineering. “At CNS, I can support the other end of our nation’s nuclear deterrent and assist in the training of other DoD elements. I continue to serve because I enjoy the challenge, and I feel as though I am supporting my country.”

Scott thanked CNS and his colleagues for supporting those who remain active in the armed forces.
“Y-12 and CNS have been the most supporting companies I have worked for since transitioning from active duty to the reserves,” Scott said. “I know that my team always has my back when I have to be out on orders for the Navy. I’m able to complete my training and return seamlessly.”

Mike F., a master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force National Guard and an instructor in Production Training, agrees the support of the company, coworkers, and even DOE are important.

“I have had several supervisors support me in my role to serve our nation. I’m also thankful to our DOE headquarters leaders who feel strongly in supporting us serving our nation,” Mike said.

U.S. Army National Guard Second Lieutenant Robert M., who is a Y-12 Project Controls scheduler, added, “I definitely feel like working at Y-12 allows me to continue to serve the nation. When I come to work, I get to actually see America’s nuclear deterrent actively being used. From the history of the plant to the individual projects and individuals who make things happen, it is incredible to see.”

His peer Allison D., a captain in the Tennessee Army National Guard and a Project Controls scheduling associate, said, “My role at Y-12 has allowed me to continue to serve the nation through providing the products through which we are interfacing with foreign nations. By doing so, I’m understanding their capabilities and threats they can bring to the world.”

“Being in the guard has helped me become more confident and able to think on the move,” Robert said. “A popular saying is that ‘No plan survives first contact,’ so being able to prepare contingencies and to think and adjust on the move has been a very valuable skill that the Army has taught me. I personally like to remind myself that I may not be able to control every situation, but I can always control how I react to it.”

“The National Guard helped me develop a positive self-improvement mentality and taught me to aim for excellence in all I do,” Jonathan said. “I learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and to bounce back when you hit a wall and keep moving forward. It changed the way I view the world and taught me to appreciate the small things. It has made me into a better leader, a better follower, and a better communicator. All these aspects turned me into a better friend, family member, and (soon to be) husband.”

Y-12ers Jonathan C., Allison D., Scott B., and Jimmy M.
These Y-12ers remain dedicated to serving others. From left: Jonathan C., Allison D., Scott B., and Jimmy M.