By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CROSBY TWP. - The most complicated and dangerous part of the decade-old cleanup of Fernald nuclear waste - removing 20 million gallons of radioactive sludge and powder from three concrete silos and transporting it to safe storage in the West - is $20 million over its $400 million budget.
And that's before the first ounce of waste is removed and with three years of work left to complete.
A consulting team hired by the federal government to monitor the project reported the cost overrun. In an Oct. 6 report, the team said it will be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" to get that money back for taxpayers, who are footing the bill for the $4.4 billion cleanup at Fernald.
The overrun stems from delays in getting major pieces of equipment needed to build a one-of-a-kind superstructure that will cover and support the intricate silo cleanup.
The government spends $320 million every year - almost $1 million in tax dollars per day - to clean up the 120-acre plant in northwest Hamilton County. The Cold War relic was integral to winning the arms race with the former Soviet Union.
"If it's bad now, why should we expect it to get any better tomorrow?" Todd Martin, leader of the consulting team, asks of the overrun problem. "Right now, there is no reason to think it will get any better."
The company managing the cleanup, Fluor Fernald, argues that the current financial setbacks and construction delays can be recovered.
But this is the third attempt to clean the silos.
The two previous efforts spent more than $69 million since 1992 before they were abandoned as not technically feasible or because the contractor gave up before doing the work.
Taxpayers stand to lose even more in connection with those failed efforts, because a former contractor has filed a lawsuit against Fluor Fernald. Taxpayers will cover Fluor's legal fees in that case, which could run millions of dollars.
Now, Fluor Fernald is testing robotic technology that will allow computer operators to remotely mix concrete into the peanut butter-like radioactive sludge in two silos, pour that into steel crates, and bolt lids in place.
That test is more than five months behind schedule.
The consultants say they don't know why the tests are so far behind, but say they are "dismayed" at the delays and view them as a "serious problem."
In addition to the project being over budget, the audit says supervisors and fieldworkers are working too many hours.
"Project engineers have been overloaded for approximately one year, and others are rapidly approaching the same condition," the report says, adding that the overruns have been spiraling upward since July, when they stood at $15.8 million.
The waste in the three Fernald silos dates to the country's first nuclear experiments and has been stored here since the 1950s.
Cleaning those silos is dangerous to workers, nearby residents and the environment. That's because any spill during the removal, packaging or shipping of the waste would be an environmental catastrophe that could expose people to high levels of radiation.
Also, there is an immenseamount of cancer-causing radon gas inside the silos. If it's accidentally released, the radon could contaminate workers and neighbors of the site.
Although government officials say the silos are structurally sound, they have never been emptied, so it is impossible to know with certainty how the aged buildings will react as their contents are removed.
Martin said there is no evidence of project managers cutting corners that could jeopardize safety to make up time on the project. That's part of the reason they are behind schedule, he said.
Company officials running the silos project don't agree that taxpayers will be stuck with overruns.
Dennis Carr, senior project director on silos for Fluor Fernald, said his managers in the field are not "overwhelmed," and that the cost overruns and schedule delays can be made up.
"We're about two weeks behind schedule, and we feel that is recoverable," Carr said. "I think we're working a rational schedule. We're operating in a manner that is consistent with the best interests of the project. Once we're in full operation, we'll recover."
That, of course, assumes there won't be major problems with the robotic process of packaging, sealing and shipping the waste.
In the mid-1990s, a plan - called vitrification - to turn the waste into glass was pursued. The government scrapped that idea after taxpayers spent more than $66 million in research and construction of a pilot plant.
The Department of Energy oversight consulting team was born out of that failure.
"There's no question that the DOE did not deliver what they promised" in its pursuit of vitrification, Martin said.
Vitrification also produced something else - an inquiry by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress - that recommended against allowing Fluor Fernald to design and build the system to clean the silos.
Enter Foster Wheeler Environmental Corp., which signed a $52 million contract to do the work on the two silos.
After a series of delays and problems, Foster Wheeler's work came to a halt in the spring of 2001. Foster Wheeler sued Fluor Fernald for $15.3 million last April, claiming it has not been fully paid for the work performed before its contract was terminated.
In a response to the lawsuit, Fluor attorneys say taxpayers paid Foster Wheeler twice as much as they should have - $30 million on a $52 million contract - when Foster Wheeler "completed only 27 percent of the work."
Contractor bows out
At the same time as Foster Wheeler started its work, Rocky Mountain Remedial Service was hired to remove powder radioactive waste from the third silo. It asked out of that $16 million contract shortly after work began.
Taxpayers spent $2.2 million on that failed effort.
Today, Fluor Fernald has the contract to perform the design, construction and operation in cleaning all three silos - a decision that runs counter to the General Accounting Office recommendation from a decade ago.
Glenn Griffiths, acting director for the DOE at Fernald, said Fluor offered taxpayers a good deal and that's why it got the contract.
Griffiths added that the $66 million spent on vitrification is not part of the current $400 million silos budget. Neither will be Fluor's legal fees, which could easily cost taxpayers millions.
"No one is satisfied with the situation we've had out there," Griffiths said. "It hasn't gone the way we wanted it to go. But we think we have a technological situation now that we can in fact be successful with. We're working as diligently as we can to recover costs and schedule, and we're keenly aware of the responsibility we have to make this work.
"The path forward we're on now is a result of two years of intense scrutiny. We recognize the history, and to some extent we're still paying the price with someone looking over our shoulder."
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