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Oak Ridge reactor cleanup to resume

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel | July 28th, 2007 | By Frank Munger
Industry type: Nuclear Industry

OAK RIDGE — The long-delayed cleanup work at the Molten Salt Reactor will resume in September, a Department of Energy spokesman said Friday.

Virtually no work has been done at the old reactor for the past year and a half because of persistent problems, including a fluorine leak in May 2006 and subsequent allegations that workers were goofing off and possibly smoking marijuana at the site.

A number of safety reviews have been conducted in recent months to prepare for decommissioning of the reactor, which has been shut down since 1969.

When work resumes, the focus will be on chemically extracting the uranium-233 from tanks that contain tons of highly radioactive fuel salts, said John Shewairy, the public affairs chief in the DOE’s Oak Ridge office.

The fissile uranium is of concern because of its potential use in nuclear weapons. It will be removed from Molten Salt and relocated to a secure facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that already houses large quantities of U-233. A project is under way at ORNL to “downblend” the uranium to reduce its weapons capability and to prepare it for disposal.

“We are making some very good progress (in restart preparations),” Shewairy said. “We believe we’re on track to start to remove the uranium from the salt in September.”

The decommissioning work at Molten Salt is a couple of years behind schedule and well over budget, and DOE could face fines from the state for missing cleanup deadlines.

DOE was obligated to have the fuel salts removed by Sept. 30, but that’s no longer a possibility. John Owsley, the state’s environmental oversight chief in Oak Ridge, earlier said the state did not plan to budge on that deadline, but he was unavailable for comment Friday.

The Molten Salt Reactor was built in 1960 as an experimental facility to test new reactor concepts, including the use of lithium and beryllium salts to cool the reactor’s fuel.

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329.

© 2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.