How much mercury is left in Alpha-4? A lot

The Alpha-4 Building, one of the original uranium-enrichment facilities at Y-12, was converted during the Cold War to a lithium-separation operation to help with the urgent production of thermonuclear weapons (H-bombs). It is the only facility at the Oak Ridge plant that still harbors the Colex equipment that used vast amounts of mercury for the lithium processing in the 1950s and '60s.

snakepit2.jpgAs the Department of Energy and its contractors face the eventual demolition of Alpha-4, along with other big buildings in that area (such as Alpha-5 and Beta-4), mercury will be a hugely complicating factor. So how much mercury still resides in Alpha-4?

Well, the answer is tons and tons, but there apparently isn't a precise number that's available or even an up-to-date, well-documented estimate. But I did get some information that gives a sense of scale of the problem.

After initially posing the question to the folks at Y-12, it was referred to UCOR (URS-CH2M Oak Ridge), the Department of Energy's cleanup manager for the past six months. That's because responsibility for Alpha-4, unlike the other buildings around it at Y-12, has been transferred to the Environmental Management program for eventual cleanup.

As for how much mercury remains in the lithium equipment, I was told last year that the info wasn't readily available but that UCOR was researching the issue.

UCOR spokesman Dennis HIll later said, "After the lithium separation process was shut down in 1963, the lithium and mercury were drained from the columns. Residual mercury continued to be drained from various building sources during several campaigns from 1984 through 1997."

More recently, UCOR came up with additional information from a Baseline Risk Evaluation report for Alpha-4 (Bldg.9201-4) that was published by Lockheed Martin at the end of 1993. Hill said the report has been cleared for public release.

Here are the volume estimates for how much mercury remained in Alpha-4 at that time:

-- 50,000 lbs. drainable from pipe joints, valves and process equipment

-- 200,000 lbs. finely dispersed throughout the process equipment

-- 50,000 lbs. dispersed throughout the insulation, bricks and concrete.

Hill said there was no information immediately available to clarify whether these estimates are still valid, noting that an earlier statement said drainage attempts were made from 1984 through 1997.

But the 1993 stats certainly give a feel for the quantity of toxic material that still exists there. A lot. A whole lot.


About this blog

    Frank MungerSenior 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. Contact Frank.

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