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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.


Clark Center Park

CarbideparkpicnicareaThe future of Carbide Park (officially Clark Center Recreation Area) is on the city agenda right now.

It’s clear why DOE wants to get out of the business of running a community park, and it makes sense that they are offering it to the city of Oak Ridge. It’s a wonderful public recreation resource — 80 acres on Melton Hill Lake, with boat launches, picnic areas, ball fields, swimming area, fishing pier, and access to the Gallaher Bend Greenway. This is an asset that can’t be allowed to slip away. I believe it needs to remain as a public park — and the city needs to say “yes” to DOE. Trouble is that the city will face the same issues of cost and liability that DOE wants to avoid. There’s no room in our city budget to take on new obligations.

When I spoke at the August 25 public meeting, I commented that this is a regional asset, not just a local park, so the city should not “go it alone” in running it. The region should help support its operation and maintenance — maybe through user fees or an annual membership (much like the old days, when use was limited to employees of the federal agency and Union Carbide). It’s costly to hire people to collect fees, though, but there may be a way to implement electronic access controls (think EZ-Pass). I also recommended that DOE should share some of the money it will save by giving away the park with the city. A chunk of the $300,000/year that the federal government spends yearly to run the park would help the city take on this new responsibility — and DOE would still be saving money. There were many good ideas presented at the city’s public meeting on the park (a model for how a public meeting should run — an unstructured opportunity where people had an open-ended invitation to make comments). I think we can make this work — but the community will need to recognize that the taxpayers of Oak Ridge can’t be asked to pay the full cost of a quality public recreation resource that benefits the entire region.


Small Modular Reactors

Babcock and Wilcox diagram of a small modular reactor assembly

SMR assembly

It seems that I’m not the only one who thinks that the DOE announcement of the small modular reactor project in Oak Ridge was a win for Oak Ridge. At least the folks around the Savannah River Site think it was a loss for them, based on an op-ed column in the Aiken Standard newspaper. The December 28, 2012, opinion piece says (in part):

The Department of Energy’s recent decision to pour millions into a new small modular reactor project in Tennessee is yet another blow to local efforts to save the Savannah River Site from what many fear may ultimately be permanent closure.

Encouraged by DOE and working with the private sector, the SouthernCarolina Alliance and other economic development groups mounted an aggressive campaign to locate SMR research and demonstration projects at SRS. However, DOE’s most recent decision to fund the SMR project in Tennessee instead indicates that this common sense approach to deploy this new technology and create jobs here in our region is not to be.

Instead, DOE has announced it will make a “significant investment” – estimated to be hundreds of millions – in Tennessee in first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for SMRs. The funding is part of a five-year cost share agreement with Babcock & Wilcox in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel. The investment is geared toward helping B&W obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and achieve commercial operation by 2022.

Small Modular Reactors hold great promise for the nation’s energy future. They are about one-third the size of current nuclear power plants, have compact, scalable designs and offer safety, construction and economic benefits.

…The loss of the SMR project to Tennessee should be a wake-up call to all of us. We must take steps now to transform our regional economy by fighting for these new missions, and our communities’ business leaders and elected officials should lead this charge.


DOE’s share of the cost of city water

A low-visibility item on tonight’s City Council agenda is approval of a contract for delivery of water to DOE. The main purpose of the contract is to determine how much DOE will pay the city for the water that is supplied to DOE facilities. Several years ago (before I joined City Council), DOE greatly reduced its water use, mostly at Y-12, which significantly reduced its payments to the city for water — leading to increases in the rates charged to other water users. The city couldn’t increase the rates it charged to DOE because they were set by a long-term contract, which has finally expired. The new contract is something that has been under negotiation for a long time, during which time the old contract (including its pricing scheme) was extended multiple times.

The contract is in the agenda package and Trina Baughn has questioned it on her blog. Another Council member asked for my take on the contract, particularly my assessment of Trina’s comments. Here’s my reply:

I’ve skimmed the water contract and conclude that it’s definitely complicated.

For potable water, the proposed new contract apportions the (calculated) “actual” cost of obtaining and treating water between DOE and the rest of the city based on the two entities’ proportions of annual usage. When I divide the annual payment of $2.075M for potable water by values at the two ends of the annual DOE usage range, which is 1.6B to 1.96B gallons (and convert the result to a 1000 gallons basis), it looks like DOE would pay less per 1000 gallons than they are paying now for potable water. (You should check my arithmetic, though!)

DOE also will pay for $463,750 annually for nonpotable water (which refers to untreated lake water that Y-12 has to buy in order to augment the flow of East Fork Poplar Creek). This document doesn’t seem to indicate how much nonpotable water DOE is currently paying for, so I don’t know how that compares to the current rates for nonpotable water. DOE is the only user of nonpotable water, and DOE’s nonpotable water needs are likely to decrease in the next couple of years, so it’s best not to charge by volume for nonpotable water. Hopefully, the amount budgeted in the contract covers the city’s entire costs for producing and delivering nonpotable water.

Additionally, the contract calls for DOE to contribute a percentage of the cost of capital projects for the river pumps and water treatment plant. I would ask the staff how much DOE’s capital contributions are expected to be in each of the next few years, and what DOE’s total cost per 1000 gallons of potable water would be, based on the range of usage amounts covered by the contract. The capital contributions may (or may not) compensate for lower per-gallon payments.

Another concern I would have with the capital part of this contract is whether it means that the city will have to get federal approval for every future project on the water plant.

Unfortunately for us citizens, DOE isn’t going to help the city pay for improvements to the city’s water distribution system. I believe that a lot of our capital costs for water are for distribution, including things like the new pump station at Robertsville, but also notably including water lines for areas like the Horizon Center and K-25, where (based on commitments made before my time on Council) infrastructure has been added to accommodate what were unrealistically optimistic expectations for economic development in the “west end”. Mark Watson thought that DOE ought to pay a share of the city’s distribution costs (consistent with the rest of us city water customers, whose payments help to subsidize distribution lines that don’t benefit us directly), but apparently DOE has refused to consider that.


PS – The contract has price escalators for future years. Note that my comments are based only on the first-year price info.


A big step closer to small modular reactors in Oak Ridge!

Today DOE announced a grant award to Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel for small modular reactor development. The press release doesn’t say so, but TVA’s site for the SMRs is the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project site in Oak Ridge. There were several SMR projects being considered involving different manufacturers and different sites, so this looks like a win for Oak Ridge!


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.



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.


“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.


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…


DOE radwaste to Tennessee landfills – next chapter

It turns out that DOE’s conference call (see previous post) was not really an “initial public outreach activity” (other than the fact that it was their first public outreach on this topic), but rather was a belated damage-control job: the Department wanted to see whether it would be a bad idea to follow through with a contract they had already signed.

According to an article in Weapons Complex Monitor, the day after the conference call, DOE canceled a contract with Toxco Inc. Toxco has filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement of this contract, which DOE entered into earlier this year, under which Toxco’s Oak Ridge unit was going to do clean-up work at a DOE site in upstate New York, including disposing of some contaminated soil in a Tennessee municipal landfill. Use of a Tennessee municipal landfill instead of a licensed low-level radioactive waste facility was going to save DOE $750 thousand. The reported value of the contract with Toxco was more than $1.1 million, so I’m guessing that the total cost of the project with another company that would send all of the waste to a radwaste site is almost $1.9 million. This represented huge savings for DOE, and Weapons Complex Monitor says that in July DOE officials had signed off on the plan to put the waste in a Tennessee landfill.

With this background, I still congratulate DOE for having the good sense to drop the idea, but hearing the rest of the story gives me a lot of concern. The Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) policy that allows low concentrations of radioactive contamination in some state municipal landfills is well-intentioned but ill-advised. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea technically — radioactivity is naturally present in the environment, and this is material (“contaminated” because radioactivity has been added to it) that may be no more radioactive (or even less radioactive) than some natural soil. Also, TDEC requires a risk assessment of each waste stream that is allowed to go to a landfill under its “bulk survey for release” rules.

The problem is that federal law does not allow for “de minimis” radioactive waste to be managed except in rad-licensed facilities (the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tried to change it more than 2 decades ago, but dropped the idea after they ran into severe political opposition), and no other state permits this (as far as I know). As a result, it appears that Tennessee is the destination of choice for some rad waste — this is cheap and easy place to dispose of lightly contaminated material. Some local businesses are profiting because they serve as middlemen in the transactions between waste generators and Tennessee landfills, but I don’t think that’s the kind of business model that this community wants to promote. Although it looks like Toxco’s contract included some other technical work on the site cleanup (and I’m sorry that they lost that work), in general I believe that the only economic benefit to Oak Ridge from these waste-to-landfill transactions is that they help a company’s balance sheet — there’s no local tax revenue, and this business probably damages the city’s reputation. Furthermore, I assume that Tennessee citizens who have tolerated landfills in their “backyards” do so because area citizens and businesses need to get rid of their garbage, not so that Tennessee can take waste from the rest of the country (and possibly the world).

If there is technical merit in allowing lightly contaminated radwaste into landfills, let’s change the disposal policy at the national level. One state should not be doing this unilaterally. There certainly would be economic benefits to changing that policy, but if DOE and industry can quietly send their waste to Tennessee, where’s their incentive to lobby for change at the national level?