February 18, 2010
The Disposition of Uranium-233 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
As a result of the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons program legacy, its Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) stores about 1.4 metric tons of uranium containing 450 kilograms of uranium-233 (U-233). The material is currently stored in a deteriorating facility at ORNL that is over 60 years old. Because of its highly radioactive and dangerous properties, the U-233 is stored in a shielded storage location and must be handled in hot cells to protect workers from exposure. Since there were no programmatic uses for the material, the Department initiated efforts to dispose of it in 2001. In 2003, however, the conferees to the Fiscal Year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act authorized the extraction of thorium-229, a material that is useful in medical and research isotope production, prior to disposal of the U-233. In response, the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) developed a three-phased approach for the thorium extraction process. In October 2003, NE awarded a contract to Isotek Systems, LLC (Isotek), to plan and design the facilities needed to extract the thorium and process the U-233 into a stable form for storage. In November 2005, however, the conferees to the Fiscal Year 2006 Energy and Water Appropriations Act directed the Department to terminate thorium extraction and to transfer responsibility for management and disposition of the U-233 to the Office of Environmental Management (EM), effectively ending any potential for obtaining medical research isotopes from this process. EM began managing the project and the Isotek contract, focusing on the processing and subsequent disposal of the U-233 at the Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). EM approved the project's $384 million performance baseline on May 25, 2007, and authorized long-lead procurements and dismantlement activities in preparation for facility construction. Due to the risk associated with this disposition effort, we initiated this audit to determine whether the Department had adequately managed the U-233 disposition project.
Topic: Environmental Cleanup