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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.



  1. Tom Barron says:

    Thank you for your blog and a great post.

    You mention that the U-233 is at ORNL. I thought all the fissile material is kept at Y-12. Is this one of the things I don’t understand that can hurt me?

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Yes, the uranium that’s enriched in the U-235 isotope is at Y-12. There’s not a lot of U-233 — DOE has about 500 kg (about 1/2 ton) — and almost all of it is at ORNL. It’s in a Manhattan Project building (built in 1943 and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places) near the Graphite Reactor.

    The U-233 was produced artificially by neutron irradiation of thorium. As I understand it, a thorium/U-233 fuel cycle is one of the alternative nuclear technologies explored in the past. Most of ORNL’s U-233 was used as fuel in the Molten Salt Reactor (MSRE) at ORNL. Removing this material from the MSRE was a major project that was completed several years ago.

    I hope that this situation never hurts us. However, I’m concerned that if the community isn’t aware of the complexity of Oak Ridge’s nuclear legacies, we may not be able to get the federal government to uphold its obligation to address these kinds of situations before they do hurt us.

    Added a little while later: If it turns out that this material can’t be disposed in the fashion that DOE plans, Oak Ridge might be stuck with it (and the costs imposed by its management) for a whole lot longer. That’s something we need to understand!

  3. Robert Weekes says:

    The U-233 stock is worth potentially billions of dollars!! We need to hold on to the U-233 until advanced molten salt reactors are developed and commercialized. The U-233 is needed to burn Th-232 in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR – see youtube videos). Many useful and life-saving isotopes like Bi-213 can be extracted on the fly in addition to nearly 100% energy utilization of natural thorium. The U-233 won’t hurt anyone, it’s surrounded by 5 feet of concrete with bedrock underneath! Save the U-233!

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