Red oil is defined as a substance of varying composition formed when an organic solution, typically
tri-n-butyl phosphate(TBP, an agent used for extracting heavy metals in nuclear reprocessingplants) and its diluent, comes in contact with concentrated nitric acidat a temperature above 120 °C.
Red oil is relatively stable below 130 °C, but it can decompose explosively when its temperature israised above 130 °C. Three red oil events have occurred in the United States: at the
Hanford Sitein 1953, and at the Savannah River Site(SRS) in 1953and 1975. A red oil explosion also occurred in 1993at the Tomsk-7site at Seversk, Russia.
Generic types of equipment capable of producing red oil in the complex are categorized as
evaporators, acid concentrators, and denitrators. The chemicals necessary to produce red oil are, at a minimum, TBP and nitric acid; other, contributory chemicals can include diluent ( kerosene-like liquid used to dilute TBP) and/or aqueous phase metal nitrates.
Controls for prevention or mitigation of a red oil explosion are generally categorized as controlsfor temperature, pressure, mass, and concentration. Maintaining a temperature of less than 130 °C isgenerally accepted as a means to prevent red oil explosions. Sufficient venting serves to keep pressure from destroying the process vessel, while also providing the means for
evaporative coolingto keep red oil from reaching the runaway temperature. Mass controls utilize decanters or hydrocyclones to remove organics from feedstreams entering process equipment capable of producing red oil. Limiting the total available TBP is another mass control that mitigates the consequence of a red oil explosion by limiting its maximum available explosive energy. Finally, concentration control can be utilized to keep the nitric acid below 10 M (moles/liter). A U.S. government study concluded that none of the controls should be used alone; rather, they should be used together to provide effective defense in depth for prevention of a red oil explosion.
* [http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/dnfsb/tr_20031113.pdf Control of red oil explosions in defense nuclear facilities] (PDF, 120KB).
Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, 2003.
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