Friday, April 29, 2005

Fernald waste on its way out

Nuclear leftovers to go to dump site in Texas

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

CROSBY TWP. - The most dangerous nuclear waste at the $4.4 billion Fernald uranium foundry should be gone by the end of the year - more than 16 years after cleanup of the Cold War relic began and after tens of millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted on the project that has been fraught with delays and safety concerns from the beginning.

Removal of the waste will represent the biggest step forward in the cleanup so far - and one of the last hurdles that the government has had to clear - because it is the one project at the 1,050-acre site that has faced the most uncertain future. That's because three previous plans for dealing with the waste have fallen through, most recently last April.

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $7.5 million contract Thursday to Waste Control Specialists, of Andrews, Texas, for the temporary storage of more than 10,000 tons of the radioactive waste with a consistency of peanut brittle. The material has been stored in concrete silos at the long-closed Fernald uranium foundry since the early 1950s and has been the major source of safety concerns for nearby residents since the cleanup began in 1989.

Waste Control Specialists has applied for a license that would allow it to permanently dispose of the material at its site in west Texas.

However, a decision on that won't be made for about a year. Regardless, federal rules governing the cleanup say the waste cannot come back to Ohio after it's moved.

"That's the important thing: Once it's gone, it ain't comin' back," said Lisa Crawford, who lives near the plant and sits on two citizen advisory boards that oversee the cleanup.

"I don't want to play Chinese checkers with this stuff, but it's got to go somewhere," she said.

The material already has been removed from the silos and placed in four, 750,000-gallon metal storage tanks, which are housed in a concrete building at the site. The process of removing the waste from those tanks, mixing it with ash and concrete and pouring the mixture into concrete moving crates should begin May 9, project manager Dennis Carr said.

"The first shipment should go out the last week of May," Carr said. "This gives us the last piece of the puzzle, and allows us to have a clear path for completion of the project."

The 5,000 storage containers will be shipped on flatbed trucks to Texas, two at a time.

In its day, Fernald was a top-secret operation that produced about 500 million pounds of high-quality uranium for the country's nuclear weapons program. The uranium was extracted from raw ore by placing it in a series of acid baths, shedding 10 pounds of metallic waste for every pound of uranium it produced. Much of that waste ended up in the silos.

And that waste has been a vexing issue for the government since the cleanup began. The original plan was to encase the waste in glass - a process known as vitrification. That plan was abandoned as not technically feasible after more than $69 million of taxpayer cash was spent. The plan then switched to removing the waste and encasing it in concrete - and the problems switched from technical to geographical.

A facility in Utah was to receive the silos' waste, until that plan was abandoned because of citizen protest. The government then wanted to ship the material by rail to the Nevada desert, until the governor there threatened a federal lawsuit last April. That has left the silos waste with no place to go for the past year - until Thursday.

In Texas, the Sierra Club has objected to the material being stored in Andrews, but a series of public hearings have been held on the subject with no other opposition. Also, the facility is licensed to store the material, which would make a legal challenge difficult.

"Issuing the contract, in and of itself, is not the holy grail," said Tom Schneider, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency representative at Fernald. "But getting the silos waste off site is considered that. We'll all be relieved when we get that stuff out, and this is an essential step to achieve that."


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