UCOR working to fill Oak Ridge’s cleanup worker pipeline

December 15, 2023, 9:50AMRadwaste Solutions
UCOR’s Ken Rueter speaks to University of Tennessee students during an engineering colloquium series. (Photo: DOE)

A significant percentage of the workforce at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee is eligible to retire in the next decade, according to the agency. In an effort to address the potential for a staffing shortage, UCOR, the DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management contractor for cleanup activities at the site, is building a consortium with colleges and universities in the region. The collaboration aims to guide more students toward nuclear-applicable careers to build the next generation of workers for Oak Ridge and the nuclear industry at large.

To date, partnerships have been established with the University of Tennessee, Roane State Community College, Pellissippi State Community College, Benedict College, Florida International University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Murray State University, Tennessee State University, and, most recently, Tennessee Tech University.

Successes: Through a partnership with the University of Tennessee’s nuclear engineering department and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, UCOR has established the nation’s first minor degree in nuclear decommissioning and environmental management. The first students graduated with that focus in 2018.

UCOR then partnered with Roane State to support its efforts to create an associate degree in chemical engineering technology. The contractor also partnered with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ metal trades department to work with Roane State on offering a chemical operator program that provides students coursework and hands-on training through apprenticeships.

The foundation: UCOR supports the consortium schools by offering the expertise of its executives and subject matter experts. These employees serve on the schools’ advisory boards and support curriculum development. In some partnerships, UCOR also provides scholarship endowments and support for first-generation students.

In addition, UCOR plans a calendar of activities for each school that includes student seminars, guest lecture series, student organizations and chapter meetings, demonstrations with state-of-the-art equipment unavailable in classrooms, and senior projects.

“Developing and maintaining a trained workforce is essential to the future of companies like ours,” said Ken Rueter, UCOR president and chief executive officer. “Our industry needs the leaders that this program is producing. In Oak Ridge alone, there are jobs for decades to come associated with environmental cleanup.”

Oak Ridge work: In October 2022, UCOR assumed responsibility for the Transuranic Waste Processing Center, the mission of which is to address a legacy stockpile of defense-related research waste. In addition, UCOR’s workforce performs the following activities at the Oak Ridge Reservation.

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UCOR is currently working to demolish the Low Intensity Test Reactor. This follows demolition of the Bulk Shielding Reactor in 2022, which was the first-ever demolition of a reactor on the reservation. In addition, crews continue deactivating other reactors, including the Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor and the Oak Ridge Research Reactor. Workers are also deactivating the complex of facilities known as Isotope Row. After removing the west cell bank at the former Radioisotope Development Lab, crews are deactivating the hot cell in the east cell bank for demolition in 2024. Other work includes maintaining the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment facility, providing upgrades for the 3001 Graphite Reactor, and other system and facility upgrades as needed.

At the Y-12 National Security Complex, UCOR is deactivating high-risk facilities. Those include facilities like the more than 500,000-square-foot Alpha-4 building as well as the Alpha-2 and Beta-1 buildings, which housed four of the 11 calutron tracks used to separate uranium during the Manhattan Project.

At the East Tennessee Technology Park, all unneeded buildings have been removed from the site, a former gaseous diffusion plant; however, now workers are performing remedial activities such as removing building slabs, excavating contaminated soil, and removing minor remaining structures. (More information on those remedial actions is available here.) The site has been transformed into a multi-use industrial park, national park, and conservation area. About 1,300 acres of land have been transferred for economic development, and the K-25 History Center is now open to the public as a museum preserving the story of men and women who helped construct and operate the uranium enrichment complex.

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