Sharing Information From the Secret City

By: Gordon Boyd
By: Gordon Boyd

Oak Ridge, Anderson County (WVLT) - State and county emergency professionals tell WVLT that Thursday's fire at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex is an incident so common-place, so easily controlled, they didn't activate their automated warning systems.

But as Volunteer TV's Gordon Boyd found out, some of them, and some citizens, question how Y-12 gets the word out to you when incidents happen.

If trouble happens, Y-12 has direct links to police, to fire, to emergency responders. How it tells us, and therefore you, is very 21st-century, but maybe, not quite as directly or clearly.

Y-12's characterized Thursday's incident as over, before it was much of anything.

"By mid-afternoon, folks had been allowed, you know, Y-12 had resumed normal operations with the exception of that building," says Bill Wilburn from Y-12.

Tennessee's Emergency Management Agency says Y-12 notified it, that a uranium chip fire had occurred, and was out, 13 minutes after it broke out.

TEMA in turn called Oak Ridge Police and the Anderson County Sheriff's Department 3 minutes later.

Y-12s folks actually had plenty of recent practice at this. They'd role-played, on an incident almost identical to Thursday's, the day before!

The Director of Knoxville and Knox County's Emergency Operations Center was part of that. "The focus of it was on getting the information to the public," says Alan Lawson, KEMA Director.

TEMA called him about Thursday's incident, 17 minutes after it happened. More than 45 minutes before Y-12 ever told the media, by e-mail.

"Do you think that's a good way to do it, or is there a better way to do it?" asks Boyd.

"I think it has a place. I don't think it would be the primary or the only way to do things," Lawson admits.

"I'd like to hear what's going on, I live here, know what's going on," says Mary Maples, a Clinton resident.

"We decided to use the email system because it's direct, and quicker, and frankly, more efficient than a telephone call," says Wilburn.

"Isn't that dependent on somebody actually checking their email?" asks Boyd.

"Yes, I assume it is," Wilburn says.

"I don't think it'd be as quick as emergency notification type of information would need to go," Lawson says.

Still Knox County's Alan Lawson says, is putting out facts, not rumors.

But some Oak Ridgers aren't sure what they did hear.

"I can't go into detail, something like a spill or something?" says Oak Ridge resident Charlie Johnson.

And some perennial skeptics question what they'll ever know:

"You don't hear anything over at Y-12 at all. You don't know nothing."

We're likely to know a lot more, how Y-12 and our own emergency responders cope with an incident and the rumor mill next month when the nuclear security administration conducts a full-scale drill, much larger than the scenario two days ago.


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