IG identifies more than 200 high-risk facilities that are dirty and degraded; ‘worst of worst’ is at Y-12

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This 2013 photo shows degraded conditions in Y-12’s Alpha-5 building, where contaminated equipment sits in standing water associated with roof leaks. (DOE photo)

The Department of Energy’s Inspector General has identified more than 200 high-risk buildings around the nuclear complex that are dirty and degraded and have no definitive schedule for cleanup, and the “worst of the worst” is the Alpha-5 facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.

The audit report released today by Inspector General Gregory Friedman found serious weaknesses in DOE’s efforts to deal with these old and deteriorated facilities — some of which have been out of operation for decades — that loaded with radioactive and hazardous materials. The schedule for turning these facilities over to DOE’s Environmental Management program for cleanup is getting pushed more and more into the future, the report said, indicating that many of these facilities won’t be designated for cleanup until 2025 or possibly even a decade later.

Building 9201-5, also known as Alpha-5, is a former uranium-enrichment facility that dates back to the World War II Manhattan Project. The IG report said the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semi-independent part of DOE that oversees the nuclear weapons complex, had characterized Alpha-5 as “the worst of the worst” even though about $24 million has already been spent to reduce risks at the big building. The reports notes that in addition to hazardous and radioactive contamination being spread by water from leaking roofs, there is a risk of explosion from materials housed there.

Here’s an excerpt from the government’s audit report regarding Alpha-5:

“This facility was built in 1944 and supported a number of missions that used materials such as uranium, mercury and beryllium. Since it ceased operations in 2005, this highly contaminated facility has experienced significant degradation. In particular, during a 2008 Environmental Management assessment, it was noted that the facility had substantial flooding, exterior piping and associated supports were corroding, and reinforced concrete roof panels had deteriorated. The assessment concluded that the combination of the large facility size, rapidly deteriorating conditions, and vast quantity of items requiring disposition made this facility one of the greatest liabilities in the Department’s complex. Further compounding the issue, the facility houses a hub of utilities that serves operational production facilities at the site, which could affect national security mission work as further degradation occurs. Since this facility was evaluated in 2008, the site has spent more than $24 million in operating and maintenance costs.

“To accelerate the cleanup effort, Environmental Management provided Recovery Act funding to NNSA to remove a portion of the legacy waste from the Alpha 5 Facility.

“However, since cleanup efforts were performed, officials informed us that the facility has degraded at an increasingly alarming rate. In particular, a 2014 NNSA site assessment indicated that roof degradation continues to be widespread throughout the facility with varying levels of severity. This has resulted in significant water intrusion and the spread of radiological and toxicological contamination.

“Additionally, the assessment identified the potential for an explosion or reaction associated with remaining contaminants and personnel safety issues related to the degraded condition as high-risk areas. Overall, the assessment concluded that this facility presents a high risk to the workers and environment and should not be accepted. The assessment noted that demolition remains the only viable risk-accepted standard. Further, it noted that funding will need to be diverted from mission work to prevent the realization of imminent risks and mitigate the consequences of realized risk events.”

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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.