Secret Cold War project results in largest US environmental cleanup via

Most of the processes required the use of mercury, especially Colex (an abbreviation for “column exchange”), which proved to be the most successful. Some of the same big buildings that had been used for uranium enrichment during the Manhattan Project were converted to Colex production facilities.

Millions of pounds of mercury were essential to the project, according to a Y-12 report.

President Dwight Eisenhower signed the executive directives that allowed much of the nation’s mercury reserves to be shipped to Oak Ridge in the 1950s.

Mercury is a slippery, elusive metal, and it wasn’t contained very well at Y-12. Leaks were commonplace in the pipes that pumped mercury under pressure. There were system failures and waste discharges.

And there were big-time spills. According to documents posted on a Department of Labor website, there were five mercury spills between 1956 and 1966 at Alpha-4 and Alpha-5 — two of the Colex production facilities — that totaled between 285,500 and 500,000 pounds. One of those spills occurred in March 1966 during the removal of processing equipment from Alpha-5.

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