COVID-19 has hit the nuclear weapons production complex, with one employee at the Y-12 National Security Campus testing positive for the disease, a spokesperson for site’s management and operations contract said Tuesday.
Y-12, like the Pantex weapons assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, is managed by the Bechtel National-led Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS). There are no confirmed cases at Pantex, which according to the plant’s main switchboard and website was still operating normally and running its three usual shifts, as of Tuesday morning.
Likewise, operations continued normally At Y-12, the nation’s defense-uranium hub and sole producer of nuclear-weapon secondary stages — although several employees who had been in close contact with the infected worker “have been asked to self-quarantine,” the CNS spokesperson said. Also, “affected work areas have been sanitized.”
It was not immediately clear when the infected Y-12 employee first took leave from work, or how many other employees had been in close contact with this person before the positive test.
Meanwhile, both U.S. nuclear weapons design laboratories had moved to minimum safe operations, as of Tuesday. The Los Alamos National Laboratory made the switch Tuesday, following the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which shifted to mission-essential-only workers on Monday. DoE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) owns the labs, and the weapons-production sites.
Los Alamos notified the world it was hunkering down in a memo from Director Thom Mason, which the lab posted online. A spokesperson said there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the laboratory’s workforce, but otherwise would not comment about Los Alamos’ efforts to contain the disease and ensure “ key national security activities that NNSA has deemed mission-essential” would continue onsite.
The Los Alamos spokesperson specifically declined to say whether construction continued at the lab’s Technical Area 55 to support the war-reserve plutonium pit-production mission slated to begin at the PF-4 Plutonium Facility in 2024. Likewise, the spokesperson would not say whether the Los Alamos workforce remaining on site would be tested for COVID-19, or exactly how many people would remain within the fence during the emergency.
On Monday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) effectively locked down the state, closing non-essential businesses and barring gatherings of more than five people, with rare exceptions.
Los Alamos has more than 12,500 employees, many of whom now will telework. The lab leads the B61-12 gravity bomb life extension and the W88 Alt 370 submarine-launched ballistic missile alteration that are in the NNSA production pipeline now. The programs are intended to refurbish the aged weapon designs for decades more service and, following delays related to non-nuclear components, are expected to turn out their first production units by 2022 and 2021, respectively.
Meanwhile, Livermore has been running at minimum safe operations since Monday. A spokesperson for the California lab said the younger of the two nuclear-design laboratories is not testing remaining workers on-site for COVID-19. Instead, the lab is distributing personal protective equipment, practicing lots of handwashing, and keeping areas clean.
“We are asking these employees to stay home if they are ill, or to go home if they are not feeling well,” the Livermore spokesperson wrote in an email Tuesday. “Our Health Services facility is open and available for anyone in need of medical assistance. Any employee who has symptoms consistent with COVID is asked to reach out to their health care provider.”
The Livermore spokesperson would not say how many people are reporting to the lab during minimum safe operations. Livermore has about 7,000 people on site, during normal operations. The younger of the two weapon-design labs, Livermore is in cahrge of the W80-4 cruise-missile warhead life extension and W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile life extension that will enter the NNSA production pipeline when B61-12 and W88 Alt 370 drop out. W80-4 is for the Long Range Standoff Weapon and W87-1 is for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
Earlier this week, the Savannah River Site reported its first positive case of COVID-19. The site, which handles some NNSA work and is slated to get much more, reported the news Monday evening and said it would move to minimum mission essential operations as a result. Savannah River Site already hosts NNSA’s tritium harvesting operations, and the agency is preparing to install a massive plutonium pit production complex there.
An NNSA spokesperson at the Savannah River Site said tritium operations and preparation for the pit plant would continuing, for the time being. The Savannah River Site is managed under contract to another part of DoE, the Environmental Management Office. The office handles cleanup of Cold War nuclear waste at shuttered weapons production facilities. NNSA passes funds for national security work through the management contract.