Oak Ridge, TN Energy Plant Explosion, May 1956


Oak Ridge, Tenn. (UP) - An explosion ripped the area of an Atomic Energy Commission plant here today, critically injuring three workmen.
The AEC said the blast was "non-nuclear." A spokesman said several containers of zirconium oxide and scraps of zirconium metal exploded in a salvage yard at the west end of the Y-12 plant, a production and research and development installation near this atomic energy city.
Zirconium is used in the AEC's reactor development program. The metal scraps are explosive when exposed.
The AEC said the blast occurred when the three men were moving aluminum scrap to clear a patch through the yard to make way for a vehicle. They were about 30 feet away from the exploding drums.
The men were identified as A. L. LYONS, 27, who was reported to have lost an arm and a leg; G. R. MYERS, 26, who had a right arm blown off in the blast; W. R. STOOKSBURY, 24, was severely burned. All three employees of Union Carbide Nuclear Co., were taken to Oak Ridge Hospital.
The site of the explosion is about three or four miles from the city. Its force was felt slightly in the Atomic Energy Commission offices here. Witnesses said dust and smoke could be seen rising above a ridge which separates the plant from the city. There was no accompanying fire and nearby buildings were apparently not damaged.
An AEC spokesman explained that zirconium is a metal which oxidizes rapidly and must be stored with great care. At Oak Ridge, it is stored under water in drums.
One theory about the explosion was that some of the drums may have corroded, allowing water to reach the metal, which then reacted violently.
Zirconium is being widely used by the AEC as a structural material in nuclear reactors. It is not an "atomic" material - that is, it does not itself undergo nuclear fission. Its usefulness in a reactor derives from the fact that it has a relatively low neutron absorption rate, and therefore does not "steal" neutrons from s chain reaction as much as other structural materials, such as stainless steel. It is used, among other things, to "clad" or jacket fuel elements in a reactor.

The Daily Inter Lake Kalispell Montana 1956-05-14