DOE’s best estimate: 151,000 lbs of residual mercury in Y-12’s Alpha-4 building

For those who’ve been reading the News Sentinel or otherwise have knowledge of the mercury legacy at Y-12 from the Cold War work on thermonuclear weapons, you know there are many, many tons of mercury at the Oak Ridge site awaiting cleanup or remediation.
Mercury was used in vast quantities — millions of pounds — for lithium-separation processes to support production of hydrogen bombs back in the 1950s and ’60s.


One of the monstrous task awaiting the Dept. of Energy and its contractors in the years — and decades — ahead is how to clean up or otherwise deal with the mercury left in the old processing buildings at Y-12 and in the ground (and groundwater) surrounding those 50- or -60-year-old facilities. It’s going to be complex and extraordinarily expensive.
Among the sites to be dealt with is Y-12’s Building 9201-4, also known as Alpha-4, one of the plant’s original uranium-enrichment facilities that was converted to the lithium program in the 1950s.
Alpha-4 is the only existing building at Y-12 that still contains the COLEX equipment that was used to process the lithium and resulted in major spills and releases of mercury into the environment.
A major challenge will be how to demolish Alpha-4 and other nearby buildings that are laden with mercury in the years ahead.
So, how much mercury remains inside Alpha-4? A lot, for sure. I reported earlier that a 1993 report indicated that about 300,000 pounds was still inside the Y-12 building. When I asked DOE if that was the best estimate, the federal agency responded with data from a 2000 report that suggested the best estimate was about 151,000 — about half the earlier estimate in a risk analysis report.
The Dept. of Energy, however, will not release the reports.
DOE spokesman Mike Koentop said the Sept. 2000 report, “Auditable Safety Analysis Including Hazard Classification for Building 9201-4 (Alpha 4) ASA/9201-4/64/RO,” is classified “for internal use only” and not available to the public.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.