BY RACHEL MELCER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HARRISON -- U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials said Thursday they are gearing up to move 215,000 square feet of radioactive material out of two cracked and decaying silos and into temporary holding tanks at the former Fernald uranium-processing plant.
The radon gas-emitting materials -- thought to be the greatest threat to public health remaining at the Cold War-era facility -- will then be treated and transferred to a Nevada dump site by 2008. But some community members, Fernald workers and members of the Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee meeting Wednesday and Thursday here said they are concerned that moving the uranium waste twice will double the possibility for catastrophe.
"They'll just have to be more careful that it doesn't react and get off site," said Edwa Yocum, a subcommittee member and secretary of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH). Said FRESH President Lisa Crawford: "It's very dangerous material. It's the thing that concerns us the most."
But leaving the material in the silos poses an even greater health threat.
The structures themselves, though supported by earthen berms, are unsound and could crumble under a tornado or other natural disaster. And a layer of bentonite clay, pumped into the silos in 1991 to prevent cancer-causing radon gas from escaping through cracks in the concrete structures, is beginning to decay.
According to Randy Janke, a DOE nuclear engineer, the 1-foot-thick layer of clay has lost nearly 40 percent of its ability to block radon leaks. While that is still effective and only background levels of radon are being detected near the silos, he said, the clay will continue to dry out over the next few years.
"It was originally envisioned to last about five years, so we've had a good turnaround," said Dennis Nixon, silos project manager for Fluor Daniel Fernald, which is responsible for the site cleanup.
Under original cleanup plans, the process of treating and moving the radioactive materials to a Nevada dump site should already have been under way. But following a series of missteps and cost overruns revealed in a 1996 Enquirer report, and a 1996 treatment facility accident, the Energy Department has had to begin again. "We were putting all our eggs in one basket," said DOE specialist Nina Akgunduz.
So now private companies have been asked to submit proposals for treating and removing the highly dangerous waste from the Fernald site, located 17 miles northwest of Cincinnati on the Hamilton-Butler county border.
Four companies, each representing a different technological approach, will be selected in August to begin developing and testing their theories. But DOE officials say they don't expect the actual treatment and removal to begin until 2005 or be completed before 2008.
"It takes a long time to get all of this technological information together. . . . It's not an overnight job," Ms. Akgunduz said. "It takes time, costs money."
Ms. Crawford said her organization will be monitoring both of those factors.
Primarily, FRESH members are worried that once the silo materials are safely contained in interim storage tanks, the impetus to deal with them will be gone.
"They call it "temporary' storage, but there's always a question that it could stay there, especially if the (DOE) budget is cut," Ms. Yocum said.
Officials at Fluor Daniel Fernald and the Energy Department, penalized once for their inefficiency at the site, stress that they must meet deadlines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or face further sanctions.
And both agencies said they welcome community and expert input, as well as oversight.
"One of our top priorities also is to work with regulators and stakeholders," said DOE spokeswoman Kathy Graham. "They've been helping us determine the best step forward, and we will continue to work with them."