What to do with White Oak Lake?

IMG_4360Warning signs at the fenceline restricting access to White Oak Dam, which separates White Oak Lake, pictured below right, from the Clinch River.

IMG_4361More than 30 years ago, when the magnitude of pollution problems on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge reservation was just becoming apparent, White Oak Lake was dubbed the nation’s, if not the world’s, most radioactively polluted body of water.

The 25-acre lake was created during the World War II Manhattan Project to collect radioactive discharges from Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s nuclear operations. The construction of White Oak Dam backed up White Oak Creek and prevented the nuclear wastes from flowing directly into the Clinch River and downstream reservoirs.

Much of the worst stuff settled into the lake’s sediments.

That, of course, reduced the potential exposures to downstream dwellers, but it created an environmental problem all its own.

For decades, as the DOE-funded cleanup of Oak Ridge sites has progressed, there has been an often-asked, never-answered question:

What to do with White Oak Lake?

The good news is that large-scale capping and closure projects in ORNL’s old burial grounds — where tons and tons of hot wastes were dumped — have greatly reduced the seepage of radioactive materials into the basin that empties into the lake. And, over time, the radioactivity in the sediments of White Oak Lake has, via the process of radioactive decay, gradually diminished.

Where once there were thousands of curies of radioactivity — notably cesium-137, which has a half-life of about 30 years — that total is probably a few hundred or maybe less by now.

But lake is still a big hazard that requires attention.

The dam is regularly inspected and maintained to reduce the chances of failure, and the water released over the dam is monitored continuously.

Years ago, regulators declared that the Department of Energy would be held accountable for the environmental degradation and, at some point, would probably be forced to drain the lake, clean up the radioactive muck, and return the area to its pre-war conditions.

If so, it’s expected to be one of the last DOE-sponsored cleanup actions in Oak Ridge.

Based on a Federal Facility Agreement with EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, DOE is supposed to provide a range of alternatives to “remediate” the lake by 2036.

However, Chris Thompson, TDEC’s Oak Ridge overseer, said recent projections of future cleanup funding indicate that the decision on White Oak Lake may be delayed until 2048.

Mike Koentop, executive officer of DOE’s cleanup program, said there are ever-changing budget projections but DOE currently plans to submit a final proposal for the lake in 2036.

In the meantime, the lake remains a notorious icon of Oak Ridge pollution.

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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.