Atop Copper Ridge near the southwest border of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge reservation is a remote site that’s been used for a series of unusual — and sometimes secret — projects over the past 60 years.
Most recently, Oak Ridge National Laboratory used the ridge-top location for a project that’s associated with government efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials. However, the Department of Energy will not provide details because the “non-proliferation-related” research is classified.
DOE declined a request to visit the site, and the entrance gate off Highway 95 is locked and barricaded, with lots of signs warning would-be trespassers.
The site is best known for its 1950s role in a government program to develop nuclear-powered airplanes. Two-hundred-foot towers were constructed at the ridge-top facility, and a small nuclear reactor was hoisted high into the air to allow radiation measurements and to evaluate the effectiveness of cockpit shielding for the pilot and crew. (Archived photo, above right, shows the tower operation in 1960.)
The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program was ultimately abandoned as impractical, but the Oak Ridge test site remained.
The towers were used in the 1970s and ‘80s to conduct drop tests to demonstrate the sturdiness of casks for transporting highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. The containers were dropped onto a concrete pad to simulate the impact of a severe traffic accident. (DOE picture, right, shows drop test using fish-eye lens in 1978.)
The remote site on federal property also allowed researchers to use a series of open-air reactors to test the radiation effects on components or various materials, including projects sponsored by Japan’s atomic energy institute. The reactor was operated from a protected bunker, and fences were in place to keep animals away from the fields of radiation during operations. Some of the experiments were done with the reactor on the ground, not in the air.
Over the years, the reactor was used to study nuclear power technologies and radiation shielding for space applications, as well as missile silo protection.
DOE announced in 2003 that it had completed removal of fuel from the nuclear reactor, thus reducing the security and maintenance costs at the site by about $2 million annually.
In response to questions about its current use, agency spokeswoman Claire Sinclair said, “ORNL is no longer conducting environmental studies at the Tower Shielding Reactor site.”
When asked what kind of environmental studies had been done, Sinclair said, “The nature of the research activities is classified.” But she said the research was related to non-proliferation.
“Currently, ORNL is storing materials from previous research,” Sinclair said.
Responsibility for the site has shifted back and forth between DOE’s Office of Science and DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, which plans to conduct a final cleanup of the site in the mid-2030s.
It’s not clear if there are plans for other projects at the Tower Shielding Reactor site. Sinclair declined comment, although she noted that materials stored there must be removed before the site is turned over to DOE’s cleanup team.
The two DOE programs signed a new memorandum of agreement last year, with the Office of Science taking ownership of the site for the next five years.
“Due to ongoing research and development work supported by this facility, an extension through Sept. 30, 2020, is requested,” Johnny Moore, DOE’s Oak Ridge science chief, wrote in a May 29, 2015 memo.
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