Thursday, June 3, 2004

Fernald cleanup fails powder test

Fix slows work on radioactive material

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CROSBY TOWNSHIP - For two weeks, crews at the Fernald nuclear cleanup site have been testing the machinery and technology that later this month will be used to remove radioactive powder from a concrete silo at the former uranium foundry in northwest Hamilton County.

They failed the test May 18.

That day, a mechanical problem, coupled with a mistake by a computer operator, led to a large amount of test material being dumped on the ground at Fernald.

Crews have been practicing with fly ash. They soon will remove the real material - a radioactive powder with the consistency of flour that has been stored in the concrete silos for nearly 50 years.

The radioactive powder has large concentrations of thorium and emits cancer-causing radon gas. It is dangerous to people because it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and absorbed into the body through the mouth and eyes.

Dennis Carr, project manager for the government's prime contractor, Fluor Fernald, said correcting the problems and retesting the system would delay removal of the real material by at least one week.

"This is the whole point of doing the tests - to get all the bugs worked out and get comfortable with the procedures," Carr said.

The accident happened on a mechanical conveyor belt, which is supposed to shake the storage bags that will hold the radioactive powder as it is being dumped into them.

The bag started to move along the conveyor belt, so the system was shut down.

A computer operator then tried to fill the bag manually, but flipped the wrong switch and caused test material to begin flowing in a second packaging station that did not have a bag on the conveyor belt ready to receive the fly ash.

Carr said they have since fixed the computer program so that no material can come out of the chutes without a bag on the conveyor belt. Crews were testing the computer program fix on Wednesday, he said.

The weeklong delay might not be a big deal, considering a bigger threat could delay the project even longer.

The state of Nevada has threatened a federal lawsuit to stop the planned disposal of the silos' waste in a landfill near Las Vegas.

Last week, Department of Energy officials wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying they want to begin removing the waste even without a clear final destination.

The rules governing the cleanup say they cannot temporarily store the material at the Fernald site.

Instead, it has to be a continuous process of removing the waste, packaging it and shipping it to the disposal site.

Jim Saric, the EPA's project manager at Fernald, said in a June 1 letter that his agency will not grant permission for temporary storage of the material at the site.

Saric said his agency thinks the disposal of silos' waste in Nevada is legal, but those issues have to be worked out between officials in Nevada and with the energy department.

Energy spokesman Joe Davis said his agency is still considering its options.


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