Source: WBIR TV | Stephanie Haines | May 15, 2018
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Seventy-five years ago, the Secret City emerged in the quiet hills of East Tennessee.
Charged by the Manhattan Project, its role was to enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb and demonstrate pilot-scale production of plutonium in a nuclear reactor.
During the Cold War years, the program’s research and missions evolved.
Now, Oak Ridge is home to the Department of Energy’s largest multi-program science and technology laboratory as well as a premier national security manufacturing facility.
At the same time, the government is still cleaning up from the sites’ historic roles.
There are three major facilities on the reservation: the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex and the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP), which was formerly the K25 site.According to the EPA, contamination is mostly located in these three areas where the public is not allowed.The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is charged with site cleanup, and the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM)
is in charge of the work.“Our sole mission is to clean up those sites,” Jay Mullis, the manager of OREM.
This year, Congress gave $640 million to cleanup efforts on the sites, up from the $400 million dollar range over the past five years.Mullis credits that to, “being under budget and ahead of schedule.”But he said there’s no one specific date for complete cleanup.“There’s decades left of work here at Oak Ridge,” Mullis said.
About 120 facilities are excess, or no longer used, and need to be removed. These facilities contain a long list of radiological and chemical hazards generated from research for the Manhattan Project.DOE stresses that these are heavily shielded.Right now OREM has been focusing on what it calls, “risk reduction.”“We’ve been going after the hazardous material, trying to get that out of the facility and then stabilizing the facility,” Mullis said. “As you can imagine a facility from the 1960s tends to degrade over time.”THE MERCURY CHALLENGE
Cleanup at other sites is further along.
At Y-12, mercury is the main challenge.During the 1950s and 1960s, more than 20 million pounds of mercury were used for lithium separation.“There’s about 700,000 pounds of mercury that was lost to the environment over at Y-12,” Mullis said.In the 1980s and 1990s, DOE did major remediation work in Oak Ridge and some parts of the floodplains of the East Fork Poplar Creek, which has its headwaters at Y-12. Monitoring has continued.But cleanup on the Y-12 site is complicated.“There were three large buildings over at Y-12 that contaminated the soils, contaminated the building structures themselves, and what we’ve seen over the years is that if we disturb the soil, we’ll have a high-flux mercury that will get into the creek,” Mullis said.