Millions of Pounds of Uranium--Oak Ridge Wastes Varied, Extensive

By Debra Castaldo

Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 16-17

The Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is owned and operated by the US Department of Energy (DOE). The ORR includes three plants: Y-12 Plant, Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant (ORGDP) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The Y-12 and ORGDP plants produce nuclear materials for research and development and national defense. ORNL is involved in research and development. The Y-12 plant has four major responsibilities: (1) production of nuclear weapons components, (2) processing of source and special nuclear materials, such as highly enriched uranium, (3) support for weapons-design laboratories, and (4) support to other government agencies. Activities include the production of lithium compounds, the recovery of enriched uranium from nonirradiated scrap materials, and the fabrication of uranium and other materials into finished parts and


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assemblies for use in the plutonium production reactors at the Savannah River Plant.

The ORGDP is a complex of production, research, development and support facilities located at the western edge of the City of Oak Ridge. The primary function of ORGDP is the enrichment of uranium hexaflouride (UFO) in the uranium-235 isotope. Extensive efforts are also expended on research and development associated with laser isotopic separation and the gaseous diffusion and gas centrifuge processes. DOE is closing down the production of UFO at ORGDP.

ORNL is a large multi-purpose research laboratory. Facilities consist of nuclear reactors, chemical pilot plants, research laboratories, and support facilities.

Hazardous wastes, such as lead, cadmium, methylene chloride, thorium, uranium, perchloryethlene, mercury, and various radionucleides contaminate local groundwater. Fifty-one million pounds of uranium are buried at the ORR. One of the main pathways of pollution to humans is through drinking water supplies. Water that drains the ORR enters the Clinch River and is subsequently conveyed to the Tennessee River at Kingston, Tennessee. The Clinch River is the source of most water used in the Oak Ridge area. Water supplies for Clinton, Oak Ridge, Kingston and DOE facilities are drawn from the Clinch River. In addition, waste waters from ORR are discharged directly and indirectly by a system of tributaries in the Clinch River.

Water analysis of the Clinch River shows the water quality to be highly turbid. Cadmium, copper, iron, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc concentrations all exceed EPA criteria for protection of acquatic life. Iron and manganese exceed drinking water standards. ORNL was issued a notice of non-compliance by the State of Tennessee (October 26, 1983) for water pollution violations. In December 1985, strontium-90 levels in the Clinch River exceeded even DOE's lax standards, and water intakes for the City of Kingston were shut down.

DOE is considering centralizing the ORR waste disposal facilities. Currently each facility has its own disposal area. Proposals for a central waste disposal facility for all ORR plants favoring a trench system were published in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement September 1984. Since soil permeability is quite low, the landfill alternative is favored over an above-ground system. But the hydrogeology of the site is quite complex, and migration is difficult to predict.

Debra Castaldo is a freelance writer with ten years experience in private industry and state/federal government environmental management programs.