Hazards outpace funding for old nuke facilities

alpha5picAerial view of the Alpha-5 building at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Below is an interior shot at Y-12. (NNSA photos)

The Alpha-5 building at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant is a notorious example of a big problem facing the U.S. Department of Energy.580299lores

Old nuclear facilities have outlived their usefulness, requiring their shutdown without the money available to clean them up or, in some cases, to keep them from falling apart and spreading their contamination.

Alpha-5, an original part of the World War II Manhattan Project, has been shut down for a more than decade, and it’s begging for attention.

The 613,000-square-foot building was used for multiple missions during the Cold War, and it’s thoroughly contaminated with uranium, mercury, beryllium and other hazards that have been made worse by the intrusion of water from an old and failing roof.

The basement is a swamp. About 2 million gallons of water have collected there, allowing toxic contaminants to mingle directly with the groundwater. And heavy moisture inside Alpha-5 has caused mold to grow like crazy, forcing the use of a respirator by anyone who ventures inside.

DOE, of course, has a long list of cleanup projects under way that pose difficult challenges and cost a ton of money.

But the problem posed by Alpha-5 and other so-called “excess facilities” is they’re not yet in the cleanup queue. In many cases there are no definitive plans for what’s known in the cleanup world as D&D — deactivation and decommissioning — or the funds to address their risks.

“When it comes to excess facilities, the first thing to keep in mind is we’re talking about a tremendous number of facilities,” Mark Whitney, DOE’s deputy assistant secretary for environmental management, said a conference held last month in Knoxville.

Whitney said the agency’s contractors have demolished about 2,500 old and dirty facilities at DOE sites around the country, including Oak Ridge. That’s about half of what’s planned, but there’s another 1,000 excess facilities yet to be added to the list, he said.

“At times, the list seems never ending,” Whitney said, “but measurable progress is being made.”
A number of reports, including one last year by DOE’s Office of Inspector General, have characterized Alpha-5 as the “worst of the worst.”

Asked if the facility is deserving of its reputation, Y-12’s Ken Harrawood said, “I think it probably is.”

Harrawood declined to give an estimate of what it’ll cost to clean up and tear down the huge building.

“We’re working on an estimate, but it’s a pretty rough estimate at this time,” he said, expressing concern that establishing a price tag might affect future bids if a subcontract to do the work is put out for bids.

The Alpha-5 situation is particularly vexing because the Department of Energy spent about $100 million of its Recovery Act funding on a project in 2011 that removed tons of surplus materials and unneeded equipment from the big building. About 5,430 containers of waste materials were sent to Nevada for disposal, and the project was supposed to be a giant step toward the eventual cleanup and demolition.

The roof failures that followed created a whole new suite of water-borne problems — although a number of steps have been taken, including some roof repairs, to keep matters from being even worse than they are.

Alpha-5 doesn’t pose as many radioactive hazards as some of DOE’s other big-time demolition projects, such as the Rocky Flats plutonium facility in Colorado or the K-25 uranium-enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Harrawood said.

But the cleanup will be complicated by the fact that Alpha-5 is located adjacent to active production facilities at Y-12, he said.

The location could limit the access of cleanup workers or pose potential hazards to Y-12 workers not engaged in cleanup activities.

Harrawood indicated Consolidated Nuclear Security — the government’s managing contractor at Y-12 — may undertake a near-term project to drain the water in Alpha-5’s basement.
He said contractor officials believe that Y-12 has the on-site capabilities at the Central Mercury Treatment Facility to treat the polluted water. An evaluation is in the works.

“We’re going to do some work this year to get some pumps and agitate water to get a representative sample,” he said.

If the water meets the acceptance criteria for the existing treatment facility, then the Y-12 contractor may proceed with the project, Harrawood said. The treatment facility has enough capacity to handle the extra work, but the concern is the water may have too much brine for the treatment systems.

Jeff Smith, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s deputy lab director for operations, was co-chair of a Department of Energy working group convened last year to look at the problem with excess facilities at DOE sites around the country.

Smith said the group concluded that the problem was not being addressed by any of the agency’s current environmental management programs.

“If you don’t start working on it, it’s going to get more and more costly and begin to impact existing missions because . . . some of these facilities are dispersed among production facilities,” Smith said.

Smith said the working group stated its case to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and he said there’s reason to believe that DOE will try to include about $100 million in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

Even if that’s approved, it won’t solve a multibillion-dollar problem, but Smith said it would be a start.

ORNL has inactive nuclear facilities awaiting cleanup attention on its campus, and the lab also has responsibility for several other facilities — such as the old Mouse House and biology research complex — that are physically located at Y-12.

The biology complex hasn’t been used for many years, and it’s literally falling apart, with pieces of the exterior occasionally sliding to the ground. “It’s as close to being knocked down as you can get,” Smith said.

Beta-3, another World War II-era building at Y-12, will require a more delicate touch because it houses equipment that will become part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
Cleanup will have to take place selectively inside the big building.

DOE’s environmental management program in Oak Ridge received more money than expected for Fiscal Year 2016, and it appears that some of the $473.8 million may be used to address problems at excess facilities.

“There is funding available that allows us to identify additional opportunities in the EM program where we can execute projects that will reduce risks and put some of the higher-risk facilities on the Oak Ridge reservation in a safer and more stable condition,” Mike Koentop, executive officer of DOE’s Office of Environmental Management in Oak Ridge.

Chris Thompson, who oversees DOE cleanup activities for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the state will work closely with DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set priorities. She said the state has asked for more information on DOE’s plans for deactivating buildings and is considering additional milestones to ensure timely cleanup.

Thompson said DOE should be able to complete its Oak Ridge cleanup, including the excess facilities, by 2046 if it receives annual cleanup funding of about $420 million.

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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.