Despite multiple encounters with buried pockets of radioactive debris, a $65 million site-preparation project for the Uranium Processing Facility is on schedule and should be completed by year’s end, federal officials said this week during a visit to the construction site at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.
The project involves relocating a mile-long section of Bear Creek Road to make way for eventual construction of UPF — a new production center at Y-12 — and the extension of a haul road to divert heavy trucks and other construction vehicles away from the plant’s commuter traffic. Underground water lines are also being moved to make way for UPF construction.
“We’re doing great,” Laurie Folden, a project director with the National Nuclear Security Administration, said Thursday. She praised the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the site preparation for the NNSA under terms of a federal interagency agreement, and the contractors.
Work was interrupted in late February and early March after a “hot spot” of radioactive materials was excavated during road work. Since then, other pockets have been discovered, requiring special attention.
Project officials have described the radioactive materials — ranging from chunks of concrete to old pipes and tiles — as a “legacy” of past operations at the nuclear weapons plant. But they were unable to explain why these materials were buried at sites apparently not authorized for disposal of radioactive waste.
“I don’t think anyone really has an answer on that,” NNSA spokesman Steven Wyatt said.
Screenings were done in advance of the project, including soil sampling, a review of aerial photographs, and discussions with former workers who might be knowledgeable about work previously done in that area.
“From this information, there was no clear indication that contamination would be encountered, but it was always considered to be a possibility because of proximity of the area to Y-12 facilities,” Wyatt said.
“Most of the contamination has been found several feet under ground, up to 14 feet deep in most cases,” he said.
The radioactive materials, including hot soils, have been placed in containers and reportedly will be shipped to the government’s Nevada National Security Site for disposal. Wyatt said updates are being provided to environmental regulators.
Asked if officials expect to find more contamination as the project continues, Folden said, “Hopefully not, but we have to ability to handle it if we do.”
The road work is taking place on the west side of Y-12, not far from the plant’s storage facility for bomb-grade uranium and the 9212 uranium-processing complex, which UPF is supposed to replace.
Access to Y-12 has always been restricted because of the national security work taking place there, but it’s been even tighter the past couple of years. Thursday’s visit by staff of the News Sentinel was the first time a news organization has been permitted in the plant’s interior since a July 28, 2012 security breach, when three protesters penetrated the high-security Protected Area.
Folden is overseeing site preparations for the UPF, but some activities have been placed on hold because of uncertainty on how the multibillion-dollar project will proceed.
Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, recently headed a “Red Team” review of possible alternatives to the Uranium Processing Facility and earlier this week submitted his team’s report to the National Nuclear Security Administration. It’s anticipated that a new approach could scale down the main UPF building and potentially alter the design and construction. The goal is to cap the cost of the UPF project at $6.5 billion and place top priority on getting out of the plant’s 70-year-old uranium facility (9212) by 2025.
Folden said the project team is being careful not to waste money on construction activities that might not be needed later, based on possible changes in the UPF plans. Therefore, the team is changing the sequence of some of the sub-projects.
In at least one case, the awarding of a subcontract was placed on hold, even though bids on the work had already been received.
A new feature on Atomic City Underground allows readers to sign up for email updates and receive a notice each time new information is posted on the news blog. Just put your email address in the box on the lower right of the blog’s front page and follow instructions. Thanks to all loyal readers.