Office of Environmental Management

EM’s Highest Priority Project at Oak Ridge Lab Gains Momentum

October 22, 2019

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Workers at Oak Ridge install new gloveboxes to begin processing a portion of uranium-233 a year ahead of schedule.
Workers at Oak Ridge install new gloveboxes to begin processing a portion of uranium-233 a year ahead of schedule.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – Workers have begun processing a powder form of uranium-233 a year ahead of schedule as part of a larger EM project to safely process and dispose of the remaining inventory of the nuclear material stored at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Launching this portion of the disposition project is an achievement for the Oak Ridge Office of EM (OREM) and Isotek, the contractor responsible for processing and disposing of the site’s uranium-233 inventory — EM’s highest priority at ORNL. This work also eliminates the need to use Building 3019, which is the oldest operating nuclear facility in the world, for storage of the material.

In the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear facilities sent ORNL liquid uranium-233, and the site converted it into an oxide form, known as Oak Ridge Oxide, which is more stable for storage. Some of that material was shipped to facilities for use as fuel in reactors. However, most of it was stored at ORNL until it could be dispositioned.

Workers were originally scheduled to begin processing that 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.

Rather than wait for the hot cells to be completed for larger-scale processing, Isotek arranged for workers to begin processing the portions 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.

An employee undergoes training at Oak Ridge to become an operator who will process a portion of the Oak Ridge Oxide during the next year.
An employee undergoes training at Oak Ridge to become an operator who will process a portion of the Oak Ridge Oxide during the next year.

For the first year of the Oak Ridge Oxide campaign, approximately 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.

Isotek received approval from EM 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.

Isotek President Jim Bolon added, “One year ago, we had an empty room, no equipment, and a plan on paper. Today, we have a fully qualified crew ready to process Cold War legacy material and fulfill a mission.”

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