The National Nuclear Security Administration reported a fire “involving uranium” at a National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Wednesday afternoon. The Oak Ridge complex famously was home to the Manhattan Project for research and development undertaking the atom bomb during World War II.
The fire prompted a total staff evacuation from the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, with buildings next door also evacuated out of caution.
An NNSA spokesperson said that the fire started at 9:15 a.m. at the federal facility, and the blaze never escaped the site itself. All 200 employees of the site evacuated without issue.
“Emergency Services responded to the event,” the spokesperson confirmed. “The site activated the Y-12 Emergency Response Organization and we’ve been in close contact with local and state officials. There are no reports of injury or contamination.”
The evacuated building, built in 1945 during the tail end of the war, is one of the primary chemical processing and enriched uranium production facilities at Y-12, according to the Department of Energy. Congressional representatives received notification of the emergency as part of that response. They were reportedly “comfortable” with the response and outcome.
By 1 p.m. local time, operations at the plant returned to normal.
During WWII, Oak Ridge became known as the “secret city.” Over 100,000 workers moved in under shroud of darkness to contribute to the top-secret Manhattan Project.
The Oak Ridge fire appears relatively benign, but we can still learn an important lesson from it
Wednesday’s uranium fire prompted a swift social media response from concerned citizens who have noticed a troubling trend developing in the United States this year: seemingly every day a new industrial disaster or emergency occurs. Multiple train derailments in recent weeks have caused massive chemical spills in areas with fertile farmland. Warehouse explosions are mounting. And massive fires continue to break out across the country, too, especially at factory farms.
By the spring of 2022, the lists of fires and other incidents at food plants had grown to include more than 90 events: fires damaged meatpacking plants in Georgia, Illinois, and other states; millions of chickens and turkeys were destroyed at dozens of farms; within a single week, airplanes crashed into two food-production facilities; and so on. A year later, that list continues to balloon.
As for Oak Ridge, there are no worries for the community members and there were no contamination because of the fire, officials stressed to the public. And that seems to be the company line for all of these coincidences — don’t worry, everything’s under control, industrial disasters are a normal part of doing business.
Is the spate of infrastructure and industrial accidents just a series of unfortunate coincidences, or indicative of a modern attitude mired in less preparation and maintenance than we once required of ourselves? Or something even worse?
Regardless, there’s no harm in preparing for accidents, especially if the current pace holds. Storing some extra food, owning a generator, and learning some basic farming skills can all ease the discomfort of any modern technological failure you may endure.