Leaking reactor pool at ORNL gets attention; AREVA wins support contract

DSC_0041A leaking reactor pool was discovered last September at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, prompting an urgent effort to pinpoint the source of the leak of slightly radioactive water and then a watchful eye to make sure the leak — about 100 drops per minute, collected in a basin beneath the facility — didn’t get worse over time.

Now the Department of Energy and its cleanup contractor, URS-CH2M Oak Ridge, are taking steps to fix the problem once and for all at the Oak Ridge Research Reactor, which was built in the 1950s and shut down in 1988.

Even though the research reactor ceased operation decades ago, the reactor pool remained filled with 125,000 gallons of water to provide shielding for some highly radioactive components stored in the pool.

The cleanup project, which is just getting started, will involve removing most of the radioactive components from the pool, draining the water, and packaging and shipping the hottest components to a disposal site operated by Waste Control Specialists in Texas.

The top of the pool will be capped with a concrete shield, which will provide enough shielding for some of the smaller — and not-so-radioactive — components left behind.

Anne Smith, a spokeswoman for UCOR, said the company has awarded a $2.8 million subcontract to AREVA to support the cleanup efforts.

According to Smith, AREVA will be responsible for removing the irradiated components from the pool and taking care of their disposal.

“UCOR will perform the balance of the work,” she said.

Overall, the project will cost an estimated $8 million and be completed by February 2016, Smith said.

The Oak Ridge Research Reactor is located on ORNL’s historic Central Campus. Years ago, during the nuclear heyday at Oak Ridge, several reactors operated in the shadow of the Graphite Reactor — the world’s first continuously operated nuclear reactor and a symbol of the lab’s work during the World War II Manhattan Project.

When DOE and its contractors were first evaluating the leak at the reactor pool and pondering what to do, there was a proposal to also drain the pool at the nearby Bulk Shielding Reactor and remove the radioactive components stored there.

“We did consider including that as optional work, but ultimately decided not to include it at this time,” Mike Koentop, executive officer of DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, said this week.

Ultimately, the Department of Energy plans to decommission and demolish the Oak Ridge Research Reactor and some of the smaller reactors in the vicinity, but those costly projects are not scheduled to take place until sometime in the 2030s.

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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.