Sunday, March 27, 2005
2 Fernald silos to be razed
Waste in holding tanks, but destination unclear
By Dan Klepal
Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer
The earthen berm, which shored up the Fernald silo walls, has been removed as cleanup continues.
The Enquirer/Michael E. Keating
CROSBY TWP. - Two of the most visible symbols of the environmental and human health threats posed by the Cold War-era Fernald uranium plant will soon be reduced to rubble.
But that doesn't mean the threat is gone.
The government contractors in charge of the $4.4 billion environmental cleanup at the 1,000-acre site have emptied two concrete silos that have held the most dangerous nuclear waste at the plant since the early 1950s. They've moved that waste - a sandy, radioactive byproduct left behind after raw ore was stripped of most of its uranium in a variety of acid baths - into four metal holding tanks so crews can begin digging out the silos and cutting them down with shears in the next few weeks.
Already most of the dirt that enveloped the sides of the silos, protecting against tornados since the mid-1960s, has been carved away. Those two silos should be razed in about five weeks. A third silo, which holds a less-radioactive powdery material, won't be torn down until the fall.
Even though the sandy waste is still at Fernald, citizens say razing the silos is a huge step - both in terms of physically being one step closer to finishing the cleanup, and psychologically making the community feel safer.
"The tearing down of the silos is monumental," said Jim Bierer, chairman of the Fernald Citizen's Advisory Committee.
The committee has monitored the cleanup from the beginning. "It proves to the community that the Department of Energy is cleaning up the site, and that there's a clear path ahead.
"We're feeling so much more comfortable about the whole thing, the technology has been working, the material is out of silos, and the silos are now being torn down. It just takes a weight off your shoulders."
That weight won't be completely lifted, however, until the Department of Energy finds a final resting place for the material, now held in four 750,000-gallon temporary holding tanks. The tanks are housed in a reinforced concrete building near the silos.
DOE officials are negotiating with a company in Andrews, Texas, to store the waste there for about two years while it seeks a permit to permanently bury the material there.
That company, Waste Control Specialists, predicts the Texas Board of Health will decide by October on permanently storing the waste.
Dennis Carr, project manager for the silos, said despite harsh criticism over safety procedures at the silos - from the Nuclear Defense Facilities Safety Board and local citizens - there have been no accidents, no exposures to radiation and no injuries on the $400 million project.
Carr also said many of the people working on the silos project have worked at Fernald since the 1980s, when the plant was still producing uranium.
"We've been on this site an average of more than 20 years," he said. "To all of us, this is the representation that the project is near over. There's a real sense of accomplishment because we knew this would be the hardest job since Day 1."
There's still a lot of work to do.
The waste still has to be mixed with cement and fly ash, placed in huge concrete shipping crates and trucked away. That last part is most important to Lisa Crawford, a member of the citizens' committee and a long-time observer and critic of the cleanup.
"The bottom line is once it leaves here it can't come back" under rules that govern the cleanup, Crawford said. "It's good that the silos are coming down and the waste is out of (two) of them, because their integrity has been questioned for years. But my fear is that this stuff is now going to stay in the temporary tanks for 50 years, like they stayed in the silos for 50 years."
If officials in Texas reject the waste, it will leave the federal government with only one option - the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas. That option is less than appealing because state officials there have threatened a lawsuit to stop the shipments and keep the Fernald waste out of the desert.
While Department of Justice lawyers say disposal of the material in Nevada is legal, a battle over the issue would make it impossible for the contractor to finish its work by the June 2006 deadline.
Citizens and crews working on the silos have become accustomed to setbacks.
Two previous attempts to clean up the silos were abandoned - after spending more than $69 million in taxpayer money - because they were deemed not technically feasible or because the contractor gave up before finishing the work. Those failures led to the current plan of encasing the waste in concrete.
A previous plan envisioned turning the waste into glass.
"The community has always seen the silos waste as the worst thing on the site," Crawford said. "This stuff has to go."
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