The following is an op-ed by Energy Department Under Secretary Paul Dabbar that was featured in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Aug. 20, 2020.
In 1989, the Department of Energy set out on a most ambitious but necessary endeavor: the cleanup of 107 sites that bore the environmental legacy of the United States’ work in developing nuclear programs that helped end World War II and the Cold War.
Over the next 30 years, DOE’s Office of Environmental Management developed and oversaw this undertaking, tackling a collective area nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. In that time, the office's projects and efforts have successfully shrunk the original footprint of 107 sites comprising 3,100 square miles by 90% down to 16 sites with an active footprint today of less than 300 square miles. The task involved cleaning up contaminated soils, groundwater and streams and demolishing massive enrichment buildings and former research facilities.
East Tennessee Technology Park
Nowhere has progress been more evident than at the Oak Ridge Reservation, one of the original Manhattan Project sites. Employees are nearing completion of the last of the demolition projects at the East Tennessee Technology Park. This effort involved an incredible amount of work to safely prepare more than 13 million square feet of aging and contaminated structures for demolition, including what was once the world’s largest building. By the end of the year, the ORR expects to become the first site in the world to successfully remove an entire enrichment complex, clearing an area that is of key importance to the community’s future economic development.
Make no mistake, DOE’s cleanup mission is not finished, and tough challenges remain. Contending with unforeseen situations like the COVID-19 pandemic adds to those challenges, affecting every aspect of life, including operations at Environmental Management sites. The workforce at the ORR and other Environmental Management sites has demonstrated remarkable resilience, adjusting to changing conditions and safely performing activities needed to protect the health and safety of the environment while addressing national security needs.
Health and safety prioritized
As the ORR progresses through a phased and deliberate approach toward resuming full activities, the DOE'S top priority is the health and safety of the ORR workforce. Enhanced safety protocols that have been instituted during the pandemic will continue as more operations are reinstated, in order to provide adequate protection for the workforce.
I can say with confidence that our cleanup successes over the last three decades have set the stage for significant progress at each of the 16 DOE sites where work continues. Environmental Management remains on the precipice of what will serve as an inflection point across the program.
Transition and transformation
Earlier this year, DOE released “EM Vision 2020-2030: A Time of Transition and Transformation,” which provides a snapshot of major achievements possible by the end of the decade. The ORR site plays a large role in this road map.
While DOE is on track to complete demolition at the East Tennessee Technology Park, other environmental cleanup work will continue in the near term. The DOE expects to complete soil and groundwater remediation activities at the ETTP by 2024 and will continue transferring land to the community for industrial development as those projects are completed. Nearly 1,300 acres have already been transferred, with another 600 acres planned in the years ahead.
Mercury Treatment Facility coming
By the end of next year, demolition is expected to be completed at the Biology Complex, clearing away five high-risk facilities and opening land for important new missions at the Y-12 National Security Complex. DOE is set to achieve another major accomplishment at Y-12 in 2025 as it finishes construction and begins operating the new Mercury Treatment Facility. By treating up to 3,000 gallons of water per minute, this vital piece of infrastructure will help fulfill DOE’s commitments to reduce mercury levels in East Fork Poplar Creek and enable cleanup and demolition of Y-12’s large, mercury-contaminated buildings.
By mid-decade, Environmental Management will also finish processing and disposing of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s remaining inventory of uranium-233. Completing this project will eliminate oversight and security costs associated with the fissile material, and it will reduce risks in the heart of ORNL’s central campus. Additionally, Environmental Management will complete all shipments of ORR’s inventory of legacy transuranic waste for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
Of course, none of this will be possible without the hard work of our federal and contractor team members or without the support of the Oak Ridge community and Congress. We view Environmental Management's strategic vision as a living document, and we look forward to continuing to engage with the Oak Ridge community on a common vision for success. I am confident that with the continued dedication of all who are connected to the ORR, we will continue seeing transformation across the site.