DOE needs to rethink problematic landfill proposed for nuclear Superfund site

The waterways around Oak Ridge, Tennessee flow into the Clinch River, shown here.

Concerns about the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) handling of the Oak Ridge Reservation Superfund site continue to grow as the department presses ahead with a plan to construct a new landfill to hold radioactive material and other contaminants on site. The agency is pursuing the plan even after learning new information about potential risks of pollution to local waterways and other natural resources.

Oak Ridge Reservation was part of the original Manhattan Project and includes the Y-12 National Security Complex, a national center for handling, processing and storing highly enriched uranium. The site contains hundreds of contaminated areas, including old buildings where radioactive material was stored for decades. Many of those buildings are being torn down, and DOE has proposed burying low-level radioactive material from those buildings in a landfill on site.

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New geological and groundwater studies have raised serious questions about whether the proposed landfill could effectively contain hazardous and radioactive waste. Initially, DOE said the landfill would maintain a 10-foot geological buffer above seasonal high groundwater, but the new studies show a substantial portion of the landfill would actually be below groundwater levels, posing a high risk of contamination.

In light of the new information, SELC requested DOE seek additional public comment on its plan — a step it has so far refused to take. SELC and the groups it is working with— Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR), Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning — are not the only ones making this demand.

In a letter sent to DOE last October, Region 4 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency joined the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in calling for an additional public comment period in light of the new information. EPA and TDEC have raised numerous concerns about DOE’s plans to clean up the site and the risks they pose to surface and groundwater, and to public health.

“The current situation at the Oak Ridge Reservation is a prime example of DOE’s history of failure to adequately address the legacy of waste created as part of its nuclear program, and how the agency often looks past concerns expressed by the public and other government agencies to pursue the quickest path forward, regardless of the long-term impacts,” said Amanda Garcia, managing attorney for SELC’s Tennessee office.

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