Workers have begun processing a powder form of uranium-233 a year ahead of schedule as part of a larger environmental management, or cleanup, project to process and dispose of the remaining inventory of the nuclear material stored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
It’s the highest priority cleanup project at ORNL, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory.
Isotek is the contractor responsible for processing and disposing of the uranium-233 inventory at ORNL. The work eliminates the need to use Building 3019, which is the oldest operating nuclear facility in the world, for storage of the material, according to DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, or OREM.
In the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear facilities sent liquid uranium-233 to ORNL, and the site converted it into an oxide form, known as Oak Ridge Oxide, which is more stable for storage, OREM said in an “EM Update” newsletter published Tuesday. Some of the material was shipped to facilities for use as fuel in reactors. However, most of it was stored at ORNL until workers were able to dispose of it.
Workers were originally scheduled to begin processing the material in October 2020, when crews are set to finish upgrading hot cells in an ORNL facility. The upgraded cells will be designed to handle larger amounts of uranium-233, providing more shielding for workers equipped with mechanical arm manipulators, OREM said.
But rather than wait for the hot cells to be completed for larger-scale processing, Isotek arranged for workers to begin processing the parts of the uranium-233 inventory with lower levels of radioactivity in gloveboxes this year. Gloveboxes are structures with ports containing gloves that allow waste handlers to safely work with radioactive material.
“We wanted to find a way to continue the disposition process while facility modifications were being planned and executed,” Isotek Deputy Project Manager Sarah Schaefer said.
Isotek received approval from DOE’s environmental management program to implement the glovebox approach in August 2018.
“In the span of a year, we were able to design the gloveboxes, procure the equipment, train operators, and pass the readiness assessment to begin processing,” Schaefer said.
For the first year of the Oak Ridge Oxide campaign, about 11 percent of the oxide will be processed using gloveboxes. This work consists of dissolving the material, and then mixing it with grout to be safely shipped for disposal, the “EM Update” said.
“One year ago, we had an empty room, no equipment, and a plan on paper,” Isotek President Jim Bolon said. “Today, we have a fully qualified crew ready to process Cold War legacy material and fulfill a mission.”
—EM Update contributor: John Gray
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