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Frank Munger

Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

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What we don’t understand can hurt us

Disposition of uranium-233 has been an issue for DOE in Oak Ridge for a number of years. Now the New York Times has an article about challenges in getting rid of U-233. The article only minimally mentions the challenges that exist at the ORNL facility, where the U-233 is now, but what the article discusses has implications for Oak Ridge.

Since this is a fissile material that could be used for weapons, criticality safety and safeguards/security are major factors in managing it — and have been absorbing some of the money that otherwise would be spent on environmental cleanup of the DOE sites in Oak Ridge. The stuff is also radiologically hot (due to radioactive progeny formed by decay of U-233), which makes its removal and processing far more complicated — and expensive.

At one time, many of us hoped that thorium-229, a medically useful isotope formed by radioactive decay of U-233, would be extracted from the U-233 stockpile for use in treating patients. The idea of using this material to save lives was scrapped due to  complexities of maintaining safety when processing the material and by Congressional action that barred DOE from attempting it. Two years ago, in an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, DOE announced that it would blend the U-233 with nonfissile “depleted” uranium (U-238) and dispose of the blended material underground in a licensed facility, such as at the Nevada Test Site. Now the Times article says DOE no longer plans to “downblend” (I recall hearing rumblings of this change), but would instead would be solidified in a ceramic form before disposal — and critics are saying that’s not safe enough.

While controversy continues, the project is providing good jobs in Oak Ridge, but its cost means that other projects that would benefit the community in the long term are being delayed — and the safety/security concerns are sitting here in our backyard instead of at a remote site out west. After the recent breach at Y-12, I believe we are all more aware of these things than we had been in recent years. (I see that Frank Munger touched on this recently.)

Recognizing and understanding these types of issues is a continuing need and challenge. What we don’t understand can hurt us, and we can’t depend on the Department of Energy to look out for the local community if we don’t look out for ourselves. (I miss the Local Oversight Committee!)

Added September 25: Frank Munger’s blog now includes an item about the report that led to the NY Times article.

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LOC R.I.P.

I’ve been trying to let the Local Oversight Committee (LOC) rest in peace and not to dwell on the matter, but I continually find myself dealing with fallout from the demise of the LOC. It was terminated once and for all last Monday afternoon (January 9). This was the fourth in a series of “special called meetings” of the LOC Board that began in early September of last year at the behest of Roane County Executive Ron Woody and Anderson County Mayor Myron Iwanski. I wasn’t at the table this time, as Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan had removed me from my position as City of Oak Ridge alternate — and thus as LOC Board chairman — via email on December 2 (after I tried to hold a regular meeting of the LOC board to address 5 months of accumulated business).

The local news media have had little coverage of this matter, but my series of blog posts should help fill in some of the details. Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel interviewed me after the January 9 meeting and described the interview in his Atomic City Underground blog: Oak Ridge environmental leader: ‘There’s been a lot of heavy-handedness’. As I told him, I feel like I was treated like a non-person. Adults in public leadership positions could have spoken directly about concerns that they may have had about the LOC’s management and direction (for example, they could have attended some of the regularly scheduled public meetings of the LOC Board on which they held seats). Instead they plotted in secret to dissolve the LOC and divert its funding to other uses, and their only communication with the rest of us was very impersonal, consisting primarily of emailed notices (I started to think of them as summonses) of special called meetings whose purposes were limited to dismantlement of the organization. As far as I know, the leaders of this effort (the Oak Ridge and Anderson County mayors and the Roane County executive, supported by the Oak Ridge City Manager) did not speak directly with the organization’s executive director about this matter until after they had finally obtained an LOC Board vote (last week) to terminate her employment. And I’ve heard reports, mostly fourth-hand and thus unverifiable, about stories exchanged by some area officials regarding the alleged misdeeds of the LOC bear only the vaguest resemblance to any actual events that I’m aware of.

I probably will never know if I’ve been one of the targets of character assassination in relation to the LOC (how can the victim ever be sure?), but I do know that this episode has seriously damaged my working relationships with some of my “teammates” in Oak Ridge city government. Furthermore, as I told Frank Munger (and as Leonard Abbatiello told the mayors, but to no avail), I believe that the death of the LOC has diminished this region’s access to the technical resources and the regional interactions that we need to make sure that the legacies of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Department of Energy (DOE) are appropriately addressed.  I also expect political damage to the various elected officials who were determined to eliminate the LOC, in the face of a diverse variety of citizens telling them (over the past several months) about the unique value it has had for them.

And what benefit do the individual mayors and local governments expect to get to balance against these losses? Indications are that the governments want to divide the LOC funding between them. The LOC grant has been about $170,000 yearly. If that gets cut by 10%, it becomes $153,000. Divided between 8 jurisdictions (7 counties and the city of Oak Ridge), that’s a bit more than $19,000 each — not a very big prize when measured against the damage that has been done.

I hope that the LOC-affiliated volunteer citizen groups that survive (Oak Ridge’s Environmental Quality Advisory Board, Roane County’s Environmental Review Board, and the successor to the LOC’s Citizens’ Advisory Panel (which was rebuffed on its request to hang on to the LOC’s nonprofit charter and IRS 501(c)(3) status) will be able to recreate some of the value — and potential value — that we are losing with the LOC. I think Oak Ridge and the region need them, even if certain political leaders don’t think so.

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“Bemused” or “amused” or “upset”?

I can’t choose the best word to describe my thoughts on media reaction to the City of Oak Ridge comments on the draft request for proposals (RFP) for DOE’s Oak Ridge environmental management (EM) contract (the successor to Bechtel Jacobs). OK, I’m tickled to see that Frank Munger likes my own main addition to those comments — the suggestion that the contract be named “Oak Ridge,” not just “East Tennessee Technology Park”, since it’s for environmental cleanup and waste management across the Oak Ridge complex, not just at ETTP. But what to say about the way Munger described those comments in his blog — not to mention the online reaction? One city comment asked DOE to require that the top executives of the new contractor and major subcontractors have “their primary residences” in Oak Ridge. It’s unfortunate that Munger sees this as “forcing” them to live in the city. Consider that this purpose of this contract is to clean up sites in Oak Ridge that are contaminated with radioactive and hazardous material, manage legacy wastes, and do it all in a manner that ensures current and future public safety. Shouldn’t the people responsible for leading this work (who, by the way, likely will receive high-six-figure compensation for their trouble) show their confidence in the quality of their work by living in the same community where they are working? From my professional background and experience at ORNL, I know more about environmental conditions here than most people do, and I believe that the Oak Ridge residential environment is safe and that the public has no reason to fear the impacts of ongoing “EM” work, but what does it tell the world if the top executives responsible for this work decide to locate their homes and families 15 or 20 miles away from the project? As the city’s letter states, “This requirement is especially important for the cleanup contract to promote community and public confidence in the ability of the Contractor to perform the work in a safe manner.”

Oak Ridge environmental cleanup has given the city of Oak Ridge an undeserved bad reputation, while providing a significant economic boost for the region. It is entirely reasonable that the people who are profiting from cleanup should support the community that is supporting them.

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Loss of DOE cleanup funding averted?

I’m tickled about the news that the big cuts in DOE’s 2011 Environmental Management (i.e., environmental cleanup) budget for Oak Ridge that were rumored to be in the proposed budget have been averted. Frank Munger’s blog tells about Representative Lincoln Davis’ role in restoring funds to the yet-to-be-announced budget. Three cheers for Lincoln Davis!

Cleanup budgets have been lean in recent years (less than necessary t0 meet previously negotiated regulatory commitments). Cutting the funding even further would not only have caused a lot of job losses, but would have required East Tennessee to live even longer with the negative legacies of the Manhattan Project and Cold War.

I hope that the funding restoration remains intact as the proposed budget moves through Congress…

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