The exterior of the Homogenous Reactor Experiment, a research reactor that was operated in the 1950s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. A DOE project will attempt to stabilize conditions at the site to reduce risks until money is available to tear it down and complete the cleanup. Below are photos of the reactor facility’s interior. (Department of Energy photo)
The U.S. Department of Energy is spending $28 million this year to reduce the risks at several old facilities at Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory until enough money is available to tear them down and complete the cleanup.
DOE is attacking one of its biggest concerns in Oak Ridge: excess facilities that are rapidly deteriorating but not yet scheduled to demolition. In some instances, it could be decades before enough the federal agency has enough money to get rid of the crumbling and contaminated sites once and for all.
Most of the work is designed to prevent the spread of radioactive materials, but one project at Y-12 — repairing the roof and other tasks at the Alpha-4 building — will help address the plant’s legacy of mercury pollution.
“The roof is deteriorating, and we have some water intrusion,” Sue Cange, DOE’s cleanup manager in Oak Ridge, said in a telephone interview. Water can affect the overall stability of the building, and that’s an issue, she said.
Alpha-4 was one of the original Y-12 facilities built during World War II for enriching uranium, but it was converted in the 1950s for lithium production to support development of hydrogen bombs. Vast tons of mercury were used in the COLEX processes for lithium separation. The upcoming project will evaluate the condition of some of the COLEX equipment located outside the Alpha-4 building and — if there is sufficient funding DOE may remove the exterior equipment and dispose of it, Cange said.
“I will say we’re concerned with the structural integrity of the equipment,” she said.
Although there is COLEX equipment inside and outside of Alpha-5, only the outdoor equipment is part of the upcoming project.
Cange said DOE’s cleanup contractor, URS-CH2M Oak Ridge, is handling most of work on excess facilities. On the Alpha-4 roof repairs, however, the agency will share a subcontractor that Y-12 has already hired for roof work at two other buildings.
Other near-term activities at Y-12 include evaluations of the old “Mouse House” and seven other buildings that were once part of the biology research complex. The studies are to make plans for demolition in the future.
If there’s enough money available, DOE would like to tear down some of the smaller buildings in the complex, Cange said.
At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, DOE wants to stabilize the situation at multiple old nuclear facilities — including the Homogeneous Reactor Experiment, which has been shut down since the 1950s.
“There’s quite a bit of water in the basement of that building, and the building is leaking,” Cange said. “Interestingly enough, the primary contamination is asbestos, and some radiological constituents.”
The DOE plan also include some work at ORNL’s old “hot cells,” where highly radioactive materials were formerly processed.
One of those facilities is Building 3026, where some of the hot cells were removed a few years ago with Recovery Act funding. That work, however, was halted when the stimulus money ran out.
As part of work planned later this year, an underground tunnel once used to transport materials at the site will be filled with grout to prevent the further spread of radioactive contamination.
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