Oak Ridge - Our Toxic Waste Problem

A couple of years ago, I was riding in the car with four of my old classmates from Elm Grove School.  All of us were born in 1952.  We were on our way to Hendersonville, North Carolina to visit our beloved 3rd and 4th grade teacher, Miss Picklesimer, now in her nineties.




En route, we remembered and talked about old friends and the places we used to hang out: the Elm Grove Drug Store and Fountain where we consumed a gazillion cherry cokes and french fries, the summer playground, the Ridge Theater where a movie ticket cost a quarter, and, of course, the immense and cavernous tunnels that ran for miles under city streets.  Back in the old days, most of us were free to roam all over the city as long as we got home in time for dinner.  There was a lot of laughter in that car as we five old girls sped down I-40 in North Carolina. 




But after a while, our conversation took a darker turn and we discovered that four out of five of us riding in that car had lost their fathers to one of the cancers related to work place exposure in the Oak Ridge nuclear facilities.  All of our fathers had worked at K-25 and three out of four of our mothers, the surviving widows, had applied for and been awarded compensation for their husbands' deaths by the U.S. Department of Labor.  




Grimly, we recalled the hazardous conditions at K-25, the largest building in the world, where uranium was enriched in cascades that exposed workers not only to radiation but myriad other highly toxic substances. Jayne recalled how her father used to come home from work every evening and remove his shoes and clothes in the garage before coming in the house.  Jayne said that she and her sisters were forbidden to touch his work clothes and shoes.  "He knew how dangerous it was," she said. 




As an aside, I once asked one of my father's old colleagues why he thought Daddy, who died of heart disease, had escaped a work related cancer.  His reply was that my dad was never on the floor of the plant but rather, as a mathematician, was tucked away in an office somewhere doing the calculations for the cascades.  


  

K-25 closed in 1987



Today, K-25 is a Super Fund Site and has been renamed the East Tennessee Technology Park.  What was once the largest building in the world under one roof is now all but gone, most of it trucked to waste sites in the West or the EMWMF disposal site behind the Y-12  Nuclear Weapons Plant, also in Oak Ridge.  




To give readers a sense of the level of contamination at the K-25 site, I am including the following excerpt from an Investigative Report commissioned by Energy Secretary Richardson in 1999. 




"Conservative estimates indicated that 35,000 pounds of uranium were released into the air from all sources. 4,300 pounds of uranium a month was unaccounted for or released to the environment. ETTP operates an incinerator which handles radioactive, hazardous and uranium-contaminated PCB wastes. ETTP generated transuranic elements (isotopes with atomic numbers greater than uranium) such as neptunium-237 and plutonium-239; fission products such as techneitum-99; PCBs; toxic metals; and volatile organic compounds such as trichloroethene (TCE) and present risk to the public. Some contaminants migrated outside the Plant boundary. Waste disposal practices included direct discharge of radioactive materials, toxics and caustics to holding ponds and storm drains, and incineration and burial. Reports reflected a number of spills of nitric and hydrochloric acids, in one case 200 gallons. Numerous large fires and explosions were reported. It is impossible to characterize exposure because of inadequate surveys and incomplete records. Records indicate that as contamination levels increased, exposure controls were reduced. Contamination above limits was commonly detected. Operations have released a variety of contaminants into the environment, such as burial of low-level and hazardous waste in landfills and dumping directly into the Clinch River. Large amounts of contaminated equipment and scrap material were sold at public auction. Tens of thousands of pounds of fluorine and hydrogen fluoride were emitted annually. The investigation team identified over 600 releases of uranium hexaflouride, and a large, visible cloud was released outside a building. Exposure to 'intense clouds' of uranium powder dusts was prevalent and resulted in intense beta radiation fields. Each month dozens or workers were identified as having exposures exceeding plant control guides. Extensive contamination was prevalent. Records indicate many air samples in excess of Plant Allowable Limits. Both chemical and radiological materials have routinely been discharged from the Plant, from both sanitary sewage and storm water systems and materials were directly discharged in Mitchell Branch and Poplar Creek. One million pounds of blowdown water was discharged a day. The hexavalent chromium concentration in Poplar Creek is equal to the level regulated by the site's permit. Contents of 500 uranium hexafluoride and other gas cylinders were emptied into the unlined holding pond by shooting the cylinders with high-powered rifles, and this pond discharged into Poplar Creek. Records confirm that radiation exceeded drinking water standards. Over 80,000 drums of pond sludge with low concentrations of uranium were generated in 1988. Ventilation was modified to discharge mercury fumes above the roof. Elevated levels of mercury were found in urinalyses. Records refer to the recovery of tons of mercury. Traps would blow out spilling mercury on the floor. Air sampling in the 1990s identified mercury levels several times the Threshold Limit Value. Continual and voluminous process leaks (blowoffs) were vented to the atmosphere. 4,300 pounds of uranium hexafluouride were released per month. Losses were excessive. 10,000 union grievances were filed and management disputed grievances concerning safety in favor of economic considerations. Many storm drains were not monitored before 1992, and routine and accidental wastes have adversely impacted the environment and the aquatic habitat. Weaknesses in the sampling and monitoring of air pollutant emissions raise concerns regarding the accuracy of public dose and exposure calculations. Environmental radiological protection and surveillance are not compliant with DOE Order. Few records reflect involvement by the Atomic Energy Commission in investigations of serious events. Levels of airborne radioactivity were as high as 35,800 dpm/ft3, and far exceeded the PAL of 2 dpm/ft3. [That's radiation levels over 17,000 times the maximum limit.] Airborne radioactivity far in excess of normal background levels was measured off-site as far as five miles away. A number of criticality and sub-criticality accident experiments were performed and posed a severe radiation hazard. Bladder cancer rates were seven times higher than for the general population, and stomach ulcers were 6.5 times greater. Inhalation of airborn radiation can increase the risk of future cancer." [verbatum from the Report]

 


 

Unfortunately, though the K-25 site has largely been remediated, toxic and radioactive waste in the larger Oak Ridge environment is not past history.  In fact, a proposed target for completion of clean up of the entire Oak Ridge reservation, at last report, was 2046.    

 


 

And so, last night, March 3, 2015,  I attended, as a spectator, an Oak Ridge City Council work session in which a Department of Energy representative made a presentation on the next nuclear waste site that is contemplated being built in Oak Ridge.  Councilwoman Ellen Smith did say, last night, (again, verbatim, I was taking notes) that there is some "really nasty, scary stuff" at Y-12 and X-10 which will require clean up and disposal.   

 


It is worth noting that the proposed site for storage of said 'really nasty, scary stuff'  is located a scant eight tenths of a mile from a residential neighborhood in Oak Ridge.

 


 

I also learned last night that the proposed waste site for high level radioactive and toxic waste can only be built in Oak Ridge under current regulations because it falls under the category of 'remediation.'  Were it not categorized as remedial, regulations would disallow it being built given the geological unsuitability (porous clay and abundant water) for such a site.  


 

More to follow, as my thoughts jell.    

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  • Susie Williams Taylor
    Susie Williams Taylor
    Thank you Martha, for this amazing article. My father's contamination happened in the early 1950's. He passed, from cancer, in 1961.

    Thank you Martha, for this amazing article. My father's contamination happened in the early 1950's. He passed, from cancer, in 1961.

  • Ron Bowman
    Ron Bowman
    Powerful! You are a very gifted writer & musician.

    Powerful! You are a very gifted writer & musician.

  • Diane Kerley Long
    Diane Kerley Long
    Thank you for such an informative essay. My dad worked briefly at K-25 in the late 40s or early 50s. He spent his career with TVA, but of course most of my friends, neighbors and my family in Kingston and Lenoir City worked at K-25, Y-12 or ORNL. My boyfriend worked at K-25 during the demolition. This "really nasty,scary stuff" is indeed scary and nasty. I think our priorities are messed up right now. People should be a lot more upset about our future than we are.

    Thank you for such an informative essay. My dad worked briefly at K-25 in the late 40s or early 50s. He spent his career with TVA, but of course most of my friends, neighbors and my family in Kingston and Lenoir City worked at K-25, Y-12 or ORNL. My boyfriend worked at K-25 during the demolition. This "really nasty,scary stuff" is indeed scary and nasty. I think our priorities are messed up right now. People should be a lot more upset about our future than we are.

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