OR EM Team Honored with Secretary of Energy Achievement Award

Source: EM Update | Vol. 13, Issue 3; Contributors: Bruce Drake, Staci West, Ben Williams | January 26, 2021

In this 2019 photo, officials cut a ribbon to mark the launch of a new public-private partnership that provides unique isotopes to aid in next-generation cancer research and treatment while advancing nuclear cleanup at Oak Ridge.

DOE recently announced the recipients of the Secretary’s Honor Awards, and three EM teams — two from the Hanford Site and one from Oak Ridge — were recognized for their contributions.

The Honor Awards are given based on accomplishments from 2019, and the Hanford Sludge Removal Project team and Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant Project and Quality Issue Resolution team both received the Secretary of Energy Achievement Award.

Oak Ridge’s Thorium Express Project Team also received the Achievement Award for an effort that accelerates the removal of a fissile material known as uranium-233, saves tax dollars, and advances next-generation cancer treatment research.

The Achievement Award honors a group or team of DOE employees and contractors who accomplish significant achievements on behalf of the Department, demonstrating cooperation and teamwork in attaining their goals.

Thorium Express Project Team

The Thorium Express Project Team, comprised of employees from the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM) and contractor Isotek Systems, forged an innovative public-private partnership with nuclear innovation company TerraPower that is accelerating the removal of uranium-233 stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) while providing rare medical isotopes for cancer treatment research.

“This is an incredible honor for the DOE and Isotek team who identified a way to begin processing uranium-233 a year ahead of schedule and get thorium in the marketplace for cancer treatment research,” Isotek Project Manager Sarah Schaefer said. “The recognition of the efforts of such a talented and dedicated group of people is extremely rewarding.”

Isotek, the contractor responsible for OREM’s uranium-233 disposition project, is extracting thorium from the uranium-233 inventory before it is processed into a disposal-ready form. TerraPower is then using the extracted thorium to support its cancer treatment research.

Due to the rare nature of the isotopes, the availability of the treatments TerraPower is seeking to expand was limited to 4,000 doses worldwide. However, the partnership with OREM and Isotek is providing the capacity to produce 100 times more doses per year to patients with prostate cancer, melanoma, leukemia, and glioma.

This partnership is also expediting the removal of legacy nuclear material stored at ORNL at a significant cost reduction to the federal government.

Isotek is using the funds it receives from the sale of the rare materials to accelerate the uranium-233 disposition project, which is OREM’s highest priority project at ORNL. The project is removing a significant risk by eliminating the inventory of uranium-233 stored in the world’s oldest operating nuclear facility located in the heart of one of the nation’s most important scientific research sites.

Sludge Removal Project Team

Over a 14-month period, a sludge removal team comprised of employees of the EM Richland Operations Office (RL) and contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company transferred 35 cubic yards of radioactive sludge from a leak-prone reactor basin near the Columbia River to a safe, dry storage location away from the river. The project was completed approximately $21 million under budget and reduced risk to human health and the environment.

Workers used specially designed retrieval and shipping equipment developed in a full-scale mock-up to remove the sludge from the K West Reactor Basin, load it into 20 shielded containers, and ship the containers to Hanford’s T Plant. That facility is one of Hanford’s Manhattan Project-era reprocessing plants that has been retrofitted for safe storage of waste. At T Plant, crews unloaded the containers for monitoring until EM determines how to dispose of the sludge.

Removing the sludge from the K West Reactor Basin has allowed Hanford to move forward with planning and preparations to remove debris from the basin, fill it with grout, and demolish the basin so the soil underneath can be sampled, characterized, and remediated. The approach is based on a proven and safe method that was used to demolish the nearby K East Reactor Basin and remediate contaminated soil under the basin.

Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant Project and Quality Issue Resolution Team

A team formed to resolve legacy quality issues at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant received the Achievement Award in recognition of its initiative and perseverance. The team consisted of members from the EM Office of River Protection (ORP) and plant construction and commissioning contractor Bechtel National, Inc.

In November 2017, ORP and Bechtel created a “war room,” where the team worked to review and approve the plant’s Documented Safety Analysis. That analysis evaluates potential accidents that could affect operations at the plant’s Low-Activity Waste Facility and identifies limits and conditions for safe and reliable operations. Once the safety analysis was complete, a similar team was created to focus on resolving quality issues.

The team implemented innovative tools for resolving issues, improved DOE-contractor interactions, and instilled a greater sense of accountability for resolving longstanding quality issues to meet schedule commitments. Senior leadership was highly visible and engaged with staff in achieving mutually acceptable solutions. The team established norms and processes to ensure future issues, regardless of complexity, are addressed and resolved in a timely manner.

As a result, the team closed 12 longstanding quality issues in March 2019.