Frank Munger, a journalist who has focused on Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Labs for the past 30 years, spoke on his experiences at the Pollard Technology Center in Oak Ridge on July 26.
This month's brown bag lunch for the Institute for Nuclear Security focused mostly on the difficulties in being a reporter for one of the world's most secure sites. The Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge is where components for the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal are constructed, and is the birth of the Manhattan Project, the secret program in World War II that ushered in the nuclear age.
Munger, a Tennessee native whose parents worked on the Manhattan Project, works for the Knoxville News Sentinel and previously for the Memphis Commercial Appeal as well as the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana. He currently runs the blog Atomic City Underground, which focuses on matters of nuclear security and technology.
For about an hour, Munger spoke about the balance he must strike between being a journalist and informing the public on matters they have a right to know, while trying to get information out of one the most secure government installations in the country, and its programs.
As an example, in 1994 when Munger started to investigate what Project Sapphire was, (a secret program to remove nuclear material from Kazakhstan) he recalls government officials calling Scripps, his newspaper's parent company. They demanded he not print a word, while he himself was still in the dark about even the basic function of the program.
He also noted how much more difficult the job has become in the recent years, with the government becoming more secretive and not forthcoming with even basic, unclassified information.
While in the past Munger had enjoyed much more access to information concerning the site, today he notes that after 9/11 it has become near impossible to get even the most basic, public information from those in charge without some kind of delay.
"I think if I were to ask someone today 'What is the name of that little creek that starts in the middle of Y-12 and flows through much of Oak Ridge?' I think they'd probably have to take about three days to come back and confirm that was the East Fork Poplar Creek. Because I'm serious, even the simplest of questions don't come back the same day," Munger said.
However, Dr. Howard Hall, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and founder of the Institute for Nuclear Security, believes that the U.S. will swing back to a more open government, but that it will take time. He also notes that the matter of openness in governments goes through phases but that "these things cycle in years, not months."
"It's going to take a while for the system to relax back to a more normal mode of operation," Hall said. "I think it will, eventually someone is going to come in and say '...If you don't have transparency, we don't have accountability.'"
As part of the Institute for Nuclear Security's monthly brown bag lunch series, this month's speaker will be Ray Smith, the official historian for the Y-12 plant. Smith is scheduled to give his talk, Stories From the Secret City Aug. 30 at the Baker Center. The event will start at noon and is free and open to the public.