By Dan Klepal
CROSBY TOWNSHIP - The long and expensive struggle to clean radioactive waste from three aging concrete storage tanks at the closed Fernald nuclear weapons plant is at a crossroads.
At issue is when crews will begin removing 153 million pounds of deadly material, and where it will be shipped for permanent disposal. The waste has been in the Fernald "silos" in northwest Hamilton County, 18 miles north of Cincinnati, since the 1950s.
Workers are being trained and tested on the complex, computer-driven machinery they will use to remove and package the waste for burial in the Nevada desert. They could be ready to begin as soon as June 28.
Standing in the way are Nevada officials, who have threatened to file a lawsuit to keep the waste out of their state, saying the plan to bury it there is illegal and unsafe.
The U.S. Department of Energy is overseeing the cleanup.
"They want to put it in an unlined trench, cover it up with some dirt and call it good," said Marta Adams, a senior assistant attorney general for the state of Nevada.
Removing the silos' waste would bring to an end a contentious history that, in the past decade, has seen two previous cleanup efforts fail and stick taxpayers with a $100 million tab.
The latest version of the project will cost taxpayers more than $400 million, and is already months behind schedule and about $20 million over budget.
But the mere threat of a lawsuit could further delay the project because the waste must be removed, packaged and shipped in a continuous process. It cannot be stored, even temporarily, at the Fernald plant once removed from the silos.
Lisa Crawford, a nearby resident of the plant who was the original plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that eventually led to the cleanup, said the silos' waste represents more than just blown budgets and schedule delays to the people living around the plant.
"The silos are terrifying," Crawford said. "For 20 years we've been told that they are very, very hot - barely below what would be classified as high-level waste. And the silos have presented so many problems over the years. Nothing works."
The process of cleaning the silos is fraught with hazard. A mistake could result in material spilling, radon gas being released into the air or even a disastrous structural collapse of the 50-year-old buildings that were intended to last 20 years. Those mistakes would be progressively worse, but any of them could result in workers or nearby residents being exposed to cancer-causing radiation.
Packaging the waste properly is also critical to protect people along the 2,200-mile route from Ohio to Nevada, where the waste is supposed to be buried.
Controversy is nothing new for Fernald workers, who have weathered multiple setbacks in trying to get rid of the silos material over the past 12 years.
This is the third, and most expensive, attempt to get rid of the Cold War remnants - waste from some of the country's first nuclear experiments - that has been stored in the silos for nearly 50 years.
Inside two of the silos is a material with the consistency of hardened peanut butter. It's the most radioactive material at the 1,000-acre Fernald complex and won't be removed until fall.
Inside Silo 3 is a bone-dry powder that is a byproduct of the Fernald plant, where men placed raw ore into a series of acids and other hazardous chemicals to melt the rock to its core of high-grade uranium. That uranium was then sent on to other plants, for enrichment and use in nuclear bombs.
The leftovers were burned in superheated ovens and came out with a consistency very similar to flour. It was then funneled to Silo 3, where it has remained since.
The latest plan to remove the waste has progressed farther than the previous two.
But the Nevada Attorney General's Office says the plan to bury Fernald waste at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles outside of Las Vegas, is illegal and a violation of the Department of Energy's own rules for handling nuclear material.
This, despite the fact that the test site has been the chosen nuclear dumping ground of the Department of Energy for decades.
Still, in April, Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval - an Ohio State graduate - wrote a letter to the Department of Energy saying he would file a federal lawsuit to stop the shipments before they could begin, unless the department found a different dump.
Since then, lawyers for the federal government have been studying the legal arguments raised in that letter and promised not to send any silo waste to Nevada without a 45-day notice. To date, no notice has been sent and no lawsuit has been filed.
But there are many unresolved questions:
Will the Department of Energy order crews to begin removing the waste on schedule, in hopes that Nevada is either bluffing or will not prevail in court?
What will happen if a federal judge orders the shipments either delayed or stopped, and the material has to be stored at Fernald in violation of cleanup rules?
Where will the material go for permanent disposal if Nevada prevails and material can't be stored at the test site?
There are no clear answers. But the decisions made by government officials - in Washington, D.C., Nevada and here in Ohio - in the coming weeks willdetermine the success or failure of the project.
"We're all dressed up with no place to go," Department of Energy spokesman Gary Stegner said at a recent public meeting.
Local government officials at the Fernald plant have refused to answer questions about the controversy for the past month, instead referring all questions to Washington. Officials there will only say they continue evaluating all of the government's options.
Gene Branham, president of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council, which represents some 400 workers across the entire Fernald complex, said his crews are ready to start removing the waste. He's concerned that any lag between the training and the start of the project could be unsafe because the training won't be fresh in the workers' minds.
"This material is deadly (over time) in minute amounts," Branham said. "Our training is complete and we're ready to go. We can't have our people sitting in the dugout for six months while political and legal decisions are made."
'The Fernald factor'
The initial plan to clean the silos was hatched in the early 1990s, and involved an experimental technology called vitrification, which would have encased the waste in glass. The project was fraught with delays and cost overruns and, after spending more than $69 million, energy officials abandoned the plan in 1997 as unworkable.
A report by the General Accounting Office - Congress' investigative arm - found lax government oversight of the private contractor in charge of the cleanup. The report concluded that the contractor, Fluor Fernald, should not be allowed to perform the silo work.
Caution signs warn of danger at Silo 3.
(Tony Jones photo)
Next up was the New Jersey-based Foster Wheeler Environmental Corp., which signed a $52 million contract to design and perform the cleanup. After a series of problems on that job, Foster Wheeler's work came to a halt in 2001 and the contract was terminated.
"I hate to say anything is cursed; we just call it the Fernald factor," Crawford said. "Everybody always says nothing will go wrong, and something always does."
The current plan to send the waste to Nevada was progressing smoothly by Fernald standards, until Nevada officials unexpectedly wrote their April 15 letter threatening legal action to keep the waste out of their state.
Government officials say the Nevada Test Site is the perfect place for the silos' waste because it is extremely dry and very hot. What little rainfall hits the surface rarely reaches underground water supplies.
The test site, an area the size of Rhode Island, is a unique place. It houses Area 51, a top-secret government compound where it is believed advanced aircraft are tested. Military officials won't even confirm the existence of Area 51.
But the test site is better known as the place where the first atomic bombs were tested in the 1940s. More than a dozen atomic bombs were detonated above the ground and hundreds more were exploded below the surface as scientists perfected the emerging nuclear technology.
"Think mushroom clouds. Think big craters from explosions under ground," said Kevin Rohrer, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Safety Administration, which oversees operations there.
Two large areas within the test site are used specifically for low- and mid-grade radioactive waste disposal.
Carl Gertz, an environmental manager for the Department of Energy, said the site has been accepting radioactive waste for 25 years and gets about 2,000 shipments annually.
"We believe unequivocally that disposal of the Fernald material can be accomplished safely at our site," Gertz said. "From an operational perspective, it's no different than any other waste at the test site."
But Bob Loux said he wants all of the shipments of nuclear waste into Nevada stopped. Loux is executive director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects in the governor's office, and said officials there have been battling the federal government to accomplish that for more than a decade.
"DOE views the test site as their own little sandbox, where they can do whatever they want," Loux said. "We have become a convenient dumping ground for whatever the Department of Energy doesn't know what to do with.
"That's got to stop."
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