Oak Ridge Workers’ Innovation Leads to Savings Across DOE Programs

Source: EM Update | Vol. 13, Issue 3; Contributor: Susanne Dupes | January 26, 2021

EM crews cleaned and demolished Column Exchange (COLEX) equipment on the west end of the Alpha-4 Building at the Y-12 National Security Complex. So far, the effort has retrieved more than 10,000 pounds of mercury.

DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM) and its contractor UCOR have found a way to reuse mercury collected from a cleanup project for Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) research instead of disposing of it, once again drawing from innovation to achieve significant cost savings.

“This questioning attitude and innovative thinking by our workforce is a major contributor to how our program is able to accomplish its projects under budget and ahead of schedule on a consistent basis,” OREM Manger Jay Mullis said.

OREM is conducting numerous projects to address mercury — the most significant environmental risk at the Y-12 National Security Complex — including the cleanout and removal of Column Exchange (COLEX) equipment at the Alpha-4 building.

Although employees drained the majority of materials from the equipment when operations ended there in the 1960s, recoverable amounts of mercury remained in aging lines and equipment that had rusted and deteriorated over the decades. So far, crews have retrieved more than 10,000 pounds of mercury in the project.

The mercury from the COLEX equipment contains dirt, rust, and grit that has collected in the deteriorated setting over the years. As crews retrieve the element, they send it offsite to be treated for its subsequent storage.

The vendor treating the mercury returned the most recent batch — nearly 1,200 pounds — after purifying it to laboratory-grade quality. UCOR employees asked if the material could be reused rather than sending it to interim storage, where it would remain until it could be shipped to a long-term storage facility for all excess elemental mercury generated in the U.S.

The answer was only a couple of miles away at ORNL. Researchers at ORNL plan to use the nearly 1,200-pound batch of mercury in an experiment to determine physical properties for liquid metal flow. In turn, this data will inform models for innovative concepts for material transfer and storage in a variety of fields.

“We are excited that our program is extending the savings and benefits to ORNL,” Mullis said.