Richard Esposito: Touring Y-12 National Security Complex

Richard Esposito

Everyone on the bus listened intently as we slowly rolled through the gates of the Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

A gentleman stood up at the front and reminded us of the importance of keeping what we would see that day a secret.

"What you see inside the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility today is considered very sensitive," he told us. "Cell phones, cameras, and Blackberries are not allowed inside.

"... and you're not to discuss anything of what you see to anyone."

At that point, I wondered why I had received an invitation. They expect me, a member of the local press, not to share my experience with our readers? What were they thinking? Just stop the bus now and let me off.

According to my math, there were close to a thousand people in attendance for the HEUMF milestone celebration last week and several hundred opted for the new facility's walking tour.

How could these folks be prevented from blabbing what they observed to their spouses? Is this the conversation the Department of Energy expected later that evening around the dinner table?

Wife: "So how was your tour of the new HEUMF today?"

Husband: "To what tour are you referring?"

Wife: "You know, the new Highly Enriched Uranium Storage Facility at Y-12."

Husband: "What facility?"

Wife: "The one that's approximately three football fields long with enough storage capacity to hold thousands of containers of highly enriched materials on specialized racks."

Husband: "I don't know what you're talking about ..."

The ceremony included several top dignitaries. Labor leaders were recognized, contractors praised, and the enormity of the project was restated.

Mostly all of the invited U.S. legislators were noticeably absent due to the financial bailout vote occurring in Washington that day.

Yes, a building three football fields long requires a lot of cement, rebar, steel and wiring. And, yes, most were impressed to hear the base of the building sits on 50 feet of solid concrete and that the structure is strong enough to withstand 200-mph tornado force winds or the impact of a jet flying into it.

(Of course, at a cost of $550 million, it should. For that amount of money, I could even keep the shingles from falling off the roof of my house during a heavy rain storm. But, I digress.)

The agenda was amended -- but not shortened -- due to the untimely absence of "key" legislators; and given the scope of planning that went into this ceremony, it was, of course, a letdown for some. But the food was enjoyable and the souvenir Styrofoam cup holder was a neat memento.

A gold-plated screwdriver would have been nicer, but I suppose the cup holder was more symbolic of the facility's mission of storing all our enriched uranium in one handy location.

Security was very tight, except for one legislative assistant checking her Blackberry throughout the presentation. My guess is she was either following the votes of the bailout plan or watching the 770-point meltdown of the stock market.

For those eager to tour the new Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, there was yet another quick security review before entering the inner sanctum of one of the most expensive warehouses on the planet. As one of many taxpayers who forked over the $550 million to construct this giant nuclear energy safety deposit box, I wanted to see just how well my money was spent.

The HEUMF in Oak Ridge, we are told, will be known as the "Fort Knox" of uranium storage. The huge metal doors resembling what you'd see on a bank vault are impregnable, and with walls several feet thick, gun turrets on all corners, and high-tech surveillance eyeing every move inside and out, this facility will certainly live up to its billing.

"It's built to last 50 years," someone in our group stated. "And it's not something you can pick up and move somewhere else or tear down as easily as K-25."

Well, we can leave that up to future generations to deal with since I won't be here 50 years from now to document it, but one thing is for certain: Those of us walking through the doors of this super-secure facility known as HEUMF would never walk through them again.

This would be a once-in-a-lifetime tour, and something everyone will "talk about" for years to come.

Or, then again, due to the need for secrecy, maybe not.

Richard Esposito is publisher of The Oak Ridger and can be contacted at (865) 220-5510 or by e-mail at