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ORNL glows in the dark

REALITY: The Laboratory has removed decades of legacy waste

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The scene is all too familiar. At tailgate parties or church socials, when strangers meet Oak Ridge National Laboratory employees, they invariably seek a cheap laugh with the question: "Do you glow in the dark?"

Unfortunately, for more than five decades, the annoying joke was grounded at least to some degree in fact. In the Laboratory's early years, workers' relative inexperience with radioactive fuels and wastes, combined with the urgency of the Manhattan Project and later the Cold War, produced legacy contamination that has shaped the image of both ORNL and the surrounding Oak Ridge community. Like many such images—some parts fact and many parts fiction—the contamination was never as broad in scope as some suggested. Still, once the "glow in the dark" myth took hold of the public imagination, only a prolonged effort to remove legacy contamination held any hope of creating a more favorable image for the Laboratory.

Today a glow surrounds the ORNL campus, but radioactivity is not the source. Instead, what many view as a "green luminescence" is the result of construction of 1.2 million square feet of new energy-efficient buildings and, equally important, the removal of more than 1,000 tons of decades-old legacy waste.

Since 2000, the Laboratory's managing contractor, UT-Battelle, has been committed to transforming ORNL into a modern, clean and attractive place to conduct world-class research. The task has been enormous. Getting rid of waste—some radioactive and some just accumulated trash—is in many ways as important as providing new buildings. Not only does the job entail a sustained commitment of overhead funds, but also much of the material requires special handling to ensure the safety of workers onsite and off.

In 2000 the average age of ORNL facilities was more than 40 years, with a large number in various states of disrepair. Laboratories in older parts of the campus housed hundreds of containers with unlabeled materials left behind by departing researchers. Before the materials could be removed, staff from the Environmental Management Programs had to perform the tedious tasks of identifying and characterizing the contents of each container. Every item was checked for potentially hazardous radiation levels. Because some buildings contained cancer-causing asbestos, disposal required special handling governed by strict guidelines.

Against the backdrop of an aging infrastructure filled with tons of legacy materials, UT-Battelle embarked upon an accelerated modernization plan that included, in addition to the construction of new facilities, an aggressive effort to reverse five decades of neglect. To undertake such a monumental challenge without direct federal appropriations, UT-Battelle imposed an internal "legacy tax" to collect about $2 million annually for the Legacy Material Disposition Initiative. The unprecedented commitment of funds was driven by years of previous neglect and the problem that some buildings were literally falling down.

UT-Battelle to date has allocated $25 million in internal funds to remove legacy wastes and unneeded chemicals and materials from more than 30 excess facilities. "We have hauled off 30 tractor trailer loads of radioactive materials, two tractor trailers loaded with 17,238 individual chemicals and more than 1,100 gallons of contaminated oils," says Martin Tull of ORNL's Environmental Management Programs office. "We have also recycled 5,200 tons of metal, cardboard, paper and other material. And we hauled off 4,560 pumps and motors—and that does not cover everything by any means."

As the Laboratory sought to get rid of legacy waste, a parallel effort was under way to move ORNL staff from nearly 2 million square feet of outdated and expensive facilities, and into nearly 1 million square feet of new facilities that boast high energy efficiency and state-of-the-art technology. The project included the demolition of 70 excess buildings and the consolidation of 10 nuclear facilities into four. Using a highly unique combination of federal, state and private funds, the Laboratory from 2002 to 2007 opened 13 new facilities at a combined cost of approximately $1.8 billion. Parking lots and outmoded buildings were replaced with 181,000 square feet of modern laboratories and 1,409 new offices.

Six of ORNL's new buildings have achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. LEED criteria were developed by the U.S. Green Buildings Council, a building industry coalition that promotes environmentally responsible technologies.

The reduced environmental impact has also been impressive. More than 30 million gallons of once-through reactor cooling water have been diverted from ORNL's waste treatment system, and discharges of mercury into White Oak Creek have been reduced by nearly 80%. Other upgrades are paying off in vastly reduced water consumption, improved fire protection, a better sanitary and storm sewer system and improved telecommunications. By 2010, Johnson Controls, Inc. under contract with the Department of Energy will have refurbished ORNL's central steam plant so that its source of heat to make steam for heating and cooling most ORNL buildings will be chips of waste wood, not expensive natural gas and heating oil. ORNL's fossil fuel requirements will decrease by 80%, reducing its fuel costs by 30% and carbon dioxide emissions by 730,000 tons, equivalent to taking about 2 million cars off the road.

The outside world has taken note of ORNL's environmental initiatives. In January, ORNL received the DOE Office of Science Noteworthy Practice Award for Sustainable Building Design & Construction, followed in June by two DOE Star Awards for Pollution Prevention. In November, the Environmental Protection Agency recognized ORNL with the WasteWise Gold Achievement Award for Integrated Sustainability.

Ironically, ORNL's enormous progress in addressing the Laboratory's environmental legacy has led some to the mistaken belief that the job is done. In fact, UT-Battelle is working closely with DOE and the state of Tennessee on a project called the Integrated Facilities Disposition Project that seeks to complete the cleanup effort in Oak Ridge. The IFDP would remove from the Oak Ridge Reservation the remaining legacies of the Manhattan Project and Cold War, including materials containing more than 27 million curies of radioactivity, 5.4 million square feet of excess facilities and 10 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and groundwater.

The dilemma of perception remains. Seeking to eliminate a decades-old image of environmental contamination, ORNL in the past six years has perhaps made more progress than any other laboratory in the DOE system to remove legacy wastes and replace outdated facilities. On one hand, ORNL staff would like to be recognized for their considerable progress and their work's contribution to the improved image of the Laboratory and Oak Ridge community. At the same time, they do not want their achievements to be a distraction from the task that remains.

Meanwhile, with each passing month the "glow in the dark" myth evolves increasingly into the realm of urban legend. Unfortunately, myths often linger long after the events on which they are based.


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