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CLEAN-UP CHALLENGES IN OAK RIDGE

Submitted by on May 18, 2012 – 9:39 amNo Comment
TOUGH-CHALLENGES---MAY-2012---FEATURE

ETTP – The Toxic Substances Control Act Incinerator (TSCAI), which was shut down in 2009 and has undergone RCRA closure, is seen at the bottom (east) of the photo. K-31 is the rectangular structure in the distance on the west side of the site. The empty pad to its right was the site of its sister facility K-33, which has been demolished.

Click here to watch a video featuring Jim Kopotic,DOE ETTP Project Manager, giving an overview of the current progress on the K-25 project.

They were instrumental in winning World War II and helping end the Cold War. But as some Oak Ridge Reservation facilities are being modernized, and a few more are being built to support new and ongoing missions, most of the old stalwarts—deteriorating facilities such as those that enriched uranium for the first nuclear weapons—have fallen victim to years of neglect and now pose potentially significant environmental hazards.

Tearing down the huge Manhattan Project facilities at the former K-25 site, now known as the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP) Heritage Center, and disposal of the hazardous and radioactive waste generated by their demolition pose some of the most complex environmental remediation challenges in the Department of Energy (DOE) complex.

It was against this backdrop that URS | CH2M Oak Ridge LLC (UCOR) took over the Environmental Management contract for DOE’s Oak Ridge Office in August 2011. The first priority was to finish the demolition of the K-25 Building, the first facility to enrich uranium using the gaseous diffusion process.

“I Didn’t Realize It Would Be So Big…”

A common reaction for the first-time visitor to ETTP is awe at the sheer size of the K-25 Building – U-shaped, a mile long from end to end, covering a footprint of about 44 acres, and comprising about 1.7 million square feet of floor space. Construction began on the facility in 1943 under pressure to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb and end World War II. The building was still being designed when the first steel girders were set in place. The process itself had not been tested on a large scale, but in spite of some naysayers at the time, the gaseous diffusion process was an unqualified success and became the primary uranium enrichment technology for the United States throughout the Cold War.

In the early 1950s, bigger and more efficient gaseous diffusion equipment was developed. K-25 and its much smaller sister facility, K-27, were subsequently shut down in 1964. To house the improved equipment, new plants were built at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio that were able to supply all the enriched uranium needed for nuclear fuel and weapons.

Lack of maintenance and general neglect contributed to widespread deterioration of both K-25 and K-27. Rain poured in through holes in the roofs. In K-25, there was often standing water on the operations floor that filtered down to the cell floor below, which still housed the equipment used to separate out the tiny amounts of the precious, fissionable U-235.

In addition, over the years, excess equipment, hundreds of waste drums and a wide array of other material were stored in the abandoned buildings to await characterization and eventual disposal. When UCOR arrived on the scene, although the west wing had already been demolished, the east wing and north end (the bottom of the “U” that connected the two half-mile-long segments) presented a wide range of technical, financial and political challenges.

The southern end of the east wing, which was the low end of the enrichment process, was contaminated with technetium-99 as a result of unsuccessful attempts to re-enrich spent nuclear fuel. Therefore, demolition of the east wing initially could not involve the southernmost portion. A buffer zone was established north of the Tc-99 area and once a swath was cut through the building north of the buffer zone, demolition could proceed northward while characterization and pre-demolition activities continued in the Tc-99 area. As a precaution to prevent possible migration of Tc-99 into other parts of the building, UCOR would not work in both areas simultaneously until they were physically separated.

The ultimate fate of the building’s north end remains undecided. K-25 is one of three Manhattan Project “Signature Sites” in Oak Ridge, the others being Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Y-12 National Security Complex, both of which, unlike ETTP, have ongoing missions. DOE had previously entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with state and federal historical preservation agencies that would preserve a portion of the north end of K-25 as part of an overall preservation effort. However, due to the physical state of the north end, preserving a portion of the facility would be complicated and costly, and DOE and UCOR believe demolition is the most viable option. DOE continues to work with state and federal agencies as well as interested members of the community to reconcile various points of view on how to best make people aware of the Oak Ridge facility’s historical significance and pay tribute to those who worked there.

K-25-K27 Project Manager Mark Ferri attributed the success of the project thus far to several factors, but said two stand out. “The K-25 workforce is the safest, most knowledgeable group with the highest work ethic of any project I have been associated with,” Ferri said. “Equally important is the real partnership, not just a paper partnership, we have developed with the Department of Energy.”

 “D&D is the Logistics of Waste Disposal…”

UCOR has found several innovative ways to make packaging and shipment of the small percentage of K-25 waste that must be shipped offsite more expeditious and cost-effective. For example, converters that do not meet the Waste Acceptance Criteria for onsite disposal were previously packaged in large cargo containers to be shipped for offsite disposal—a labor intensive and expensive process.

UCOR is now shipping these components using cradles. In some instances, they will wrap the containers, and for others, they have received permission to allow the converter itself to qualify as a Department of Transportation-approved shipping container.

The groundwork for using these alternative shipping methods was achieved by teaming with officials at the sites where wastes are being disposed, and by hiring UCOR personnel who had experience either shipping to or working at these disposal sites. The expertise of these individuals is key to planning disposal activities.

“Most people do not realize that D&D is the logistics of waste disposal,” Ferri said.

 What’s Next?

Even before the issue of the K-25 north end was tentatively resolved, UCOR was looking ahead to the demolition of K-27. The smaller sister facility had also been placed into operation in 1945 to enhance the enrichment capabilities of K-25. K-27 has also deteriorated because of neglect and lack of maintenance, and this deterioration continues. The sooner that work can get started the better. Since K-27 was the only other uranium enrichment facility to use the same equipment, architectural design and configuration as K-25, the experience gained in the demolition of K-25 will be invaluable.

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As UCOR nears having the Tc-99 section of K-25 demolition-ready, project managers would like to begin moving those workers involved in characterization and other prep activities to K-27 and accelerate that pre-demolition work. To do so, UCOR hopes to use cost savings realized from other projects to jump-start work on K-27. It is estimated that if demolition of K-27 could be pulled into FY 2012, and with accelerated funding in 2013 and 2014, the project could be finished two years earlier and reduce life-cycle costs by $300 million.

One of the cost-saving initiatives implemented by UCOR involves revamping its subcontracting strategy to use a staff augmentation approach. This enables UCOR to procure subcontractor personnel to perform functions that would usually be performed by UCOR employees. UCOR provides the management direction and oversight to the subcontractors. Under task-based subcontracts, UCOR would not manage the day-to-day work. This will result in cost savings of about $14 million per year that can be used to accelerate work on projects like K-27.

Since becoming DOE’s cleanup contractor, UCOR has identified approximately $36 million in savings and has reinvested these savings back into project work.

“These savings, along with the budget we received for FY 2012, allowed us to keep all work on track with no reduction in force,” said UCOR President and Project Manager Leo Sain. “Without these savings, our work could have been stopped due to workforce reductions.”

Sain pointed out that in the long-term, additional cleanup work will be added to the UCOR contract and allow additional subcontracting opportunities in the future.

“We understand that we need to work as efficiently as possible at a time when the federal government is cutting budgets to address our national debt,” Sain said. “We are constantly looking at ways to save money, and we feel our new subcontracting approach is the right thing to do in being good stewards of the tax dollars entrusted to us.”

Reindustrialization – the Oak Ridge Asset Revitalization Initiative

DOE, in partnership with the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee (CROET), established a model for the sustainable and innovative reuse of DOE underutilized assets, identified as the Reindustrialization Program. The program applies expertise to accelerate cleanup and promote economic development through the reuse of assets (e.g. buildings, land, equipment and technology) made available to private sector businesses. CROET is a non-profit organization formed to help DOE find productive private uses for no longer used federal assets and achieve the desired site end-state—the redevelopment and reindustrialization of the site into the Heritage Center industrial park.

UCOR joined the DOE/CROET partnership to foster a collaborative framework for the reindustrialization of the site. The DOE/CROET/UCOR partnership is fully committed to an end-state as a private-sector-based industrial/business park. “As buildings are demolished and other facilities and land parcels certified for re-use by non-government entities,” said UCOR Reindustrialization Manager Cathy Hickey, “DOE, with the assistance of UCOR, working hand-in-hand with CROET, will turn the ETTP site into a private industrial park.”

The Reindustrialization Program is a major driver for the ETTP site cleanup as DOE missions change, federal budgets shrink, and the number of federal and contractor employees across the Oak Ridge Reservation decreases. To date, the Reindustrialization program has transferred underutilized assets including 693 acres, 14 buildings and 332,000 square feet for private/public reuse.

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It is estimated that if demolition of K-27 could be pulled into FY 2012, and with accelerated funding in 2013 and 2014, the project could be finished two years earlier and reduce life-cycle costs by $300 million.

 But wait! There’s more!

Although demolition of K-25 and K-27 are the top priorities under UCOR’s Environmental Management contract, there are dozens of other facilities at ETTP slated for eventual demolition as funding becomes available. Among those are support buildings referred to as the “Poplar Creek” facilities because of their proximity to the creek, which empties into the nearby Clinch River. In preparation for their eventual demolition, UCOR rendered them “cold and dark.”

Traveling past the ETTP site on U.S. 58, the most dominant plant feature is a tall, windowless structure that towers over the surrounding buildings. The gas centrifuge pilot plant was constructed during the 1970s as DOE searched for a cheaper, more efficient alternative to gaseous diffusion for enriching uranium. The now outdated facility will also have to be demolished eventually.

Near the ETTP eastern boundary is the Toxic Substances Control Act Incinerator (TSCAI) which was shut down in 2009 after 18 years of operation. UCOR maintains the facility in surveillance and maintenance mode, but it is demolition ready.

UCOR also successfully completed removal of contaminated debris from a 60-year-old landfill at the site. The 6.5-acre landfill, called K-1070-B, was used from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s to dispose of items such as equipment, materials, parts and drums. The materials were removed to minimize the potential for future contamination of surface water and groundwater, and a protective cover is being installed over the site. Most of the debris was disposed at an onsite facility, with only three shipments sent offsite.

Getting these and other projects funded over the next few years presents one of UCOR’s major challenges, especially as the competition for limited cleanup dollars becomes more intense.

 EM Projects Outside ETTP

Before UCOR assumed its responsibilities under the new contract, the company was asked to add a project that had not been in its original scope of work, but that had presented a lingering problem for DOE and previous contractors that had attempted to deal with it.

A 4,000-gallon underground storage tank at ORNL, known as Tank W-1A, was commissioned in 1951 to collect and store liquid wastes from radiochemical separations and high-radiation analytical facilities at ORNL. During its operation, a transfer line to the tank was suspected of leaking near the tank intake, causing significant soil and groundwater contamination in the vicinity of the tank. It was emptied and removed from service in 1986 after the leak was discovered. Over the years, attempts to move the project forward and remove the tank, which was the largest contributor to groundwater contamination at ORNL, were largely unsuccessful.

UCOR excavated, removed and disposed of the tank, along with dozens of boxes of contaminated soil and other contaminated material, and is currently in the process of restoring the site and demobilizing the equipment.

Cleanup of the Oak Ridge Reservation involves the remediation of multiple sources of contamination to soil, groundwater and surface water at all three sites.

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 An ETTP Wipeout and ORNL Waste Roundup

At the onset of the UCOR contract, management looked for opportunities to improve efficiencies in the General Maintenance organization. Although all personnel and resources were fully deployed most of the time, there was some down time between peak work demands and during slower periods. Improved planning and scheduling reduced the down periods, but to close the gap further, “Project Wipeout” was initiated at East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP) and “Waste Roundup” at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

These initiatives involved the removal and disposal of 4,500 wooden pallets at ETTP and cleanup of debris, drums, office waste, salvage material, recyclable metal, pallets, waste chemicals and other materials scattered across the ORNL site—some in buildings and some stored outdoors.

“We must do all we can to identify, characterize and dispose of this material,” said UCOR Operations and Surveillance and Maintenance Manager Bob Smith, “because we have to account for it and maintain it in a safe condition anyway, which represents an ongoing cost. Why not absorb those costs up front to the extent possible by properly disposing of it?”

Disposing of legacy waste reduces the environmental issues related to long-term staging of radioactive and hazardous wastes. To achieve the goal of timely disposal, the ORNL Waste Roundup Project is working on characterization and regulatory documents necessary to facilitate disposal of this waste at the Environmental Management waste Management Facility (EMWMF) on the Reservation. This would save millions of dollars in offsite disposal fees while making timely visible progress towards cleaning up legacy waste at ORNL. Similar efforts are underway at ETTP under Project Wipeout.

 What’s on the Horizon?

The next big item on the EM agenda at Oak Ridge is mercury contamination in soils, surface water and sediments at the Y-12 National Security Complex. The primary sources of this contamination are several large buildings once used in the lithium separation processes. Those buildings have significant amounts of residual mercury throughout, and D&D of those facilities and disposal of the waste present additional challenges that will need to be addressed in the near future.

The mercury contamination and its sources were the subject of a lengthy series of articles in the local press and have garnered the attention of local and state officials as well as members of the Tennessee Congressional delegation.

Part of the challenge will be to maintain funding for those projects at ETTP aside from K-25 and K-27 as mercury remediation promises to take bigger and bigger portions of the available EM funds.

“UCOR has accomplished much in the short time since taking over the EM contract for the Oak Ridge Reservation,” Sain said. “The work demands a wide range of technical skills, expertise and experience in nuclear cleanup. The company has put together a team that is capable of successfully addressing the technical, logistical, financial and engineering challenges inherent in the Oak Ridge project, and we look forward to conquering those challenges in the future.”

 

About the Author:

Dennis Hill has worked for 20 years in Public Affairs and Communications for DOE environmental management contractors in Kentucky and Tennessee, US. Prior to that, he spent 12 years as a print journalist, eventually specializing in environmental issues, which led him to his present career. During his 13 years at Oak Ridge, he has worked in media relations, internal communications, community outreach and crisis communication. Hill is currently on the Public Affairs and Communications staff for URS | CH2M Oak Ridge, LLC (UCOR).

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