Monday, June 21, 2004

Production to cleanup: a Fernald primer

By Dan Klepal
The Enquirer

The cleanup of nuclear waste at the Fernald plant is a massive undertaking. Removing waste from the three concrete silos is just one $400 million piece of the larger $4.4 billion, 1,000-acre cleanup of the entire Fernald complex, which is being financed by taxpayers. Here are answers to some commonly asked questions.

Click for a detailed look at the cleanup of Fernald.

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QUESTION: What is Fernald?

ANSWER: From 1952 until 1989, Fernald was a top-secret foundry in the Department of Energy's weapons complex where high-grade uranium was mined from raw ore. That uranium was sent to other plants for enrichment and use in nuclear bombs. The workers at Fernald were forbidden to discuss their work, even with their spouses. Since closing in 1989, Fernald has been the site of a $4 billion environmental restoration that includes tearing down contaminated buildings, removing millions of tons of contaminated earth and cleaning three concrete silos that contain waste from nuclear experiments.

Q: Where is Fernald?

A: In Crosby Township, 18 miles from downtown Cincinnati, in the northwest corner of Hamilton County.

Q: When were the silos built?

A: In 1951 and 1952.

Q: How many silos were built?

A: Four, but only three were used to hold waste. The fourth sat empty for decades and was later used in tests probing the soundness of the structures.

Q: How long were the silos intended to last?

A: About 20 years, but structural analysis over the years shows they are sound today.

Q: Why does the federal government want to remove the waste?

A: Permanent disposal of the waste underground will be safer than in the silos, which could collapse because of age, natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Q: What is Fluor Fernald?

A: A subsidiary of one of the world's largest engineering and construction firms, the Fluor Corp. (formerly Fluor Daniel), which has its U.S. headquarters in Texas. Fluor Corp. created Fluor Fernald after winning a $2 billion government contract to be the prime contractor overseeing all cleanup activities at the site. Fluor has since bid on and won additional contracts at Fernald.

Q: Why should I care?

A: The government has been spending about $1 million of your tax dollars daily to clean up Fernald since 1992. The project is expected to last until 2006, when the vast majority of the site will be turned into public parkland. Also, the cleanup has to be done safely to protect the lives of workers, people living near the plant and anyone along the 2,200-mile route from Ohio to Nevada, where the waste is scheduled to be dumped.

Q: What is in Silo 3 waste?

A: The material is made up of flakes of metallic oxides that were dissolved in acids as uranium was extracted from ore. The residues were roasted to remove moisture, then placed in Silo 3. Other hazardous materials present in the waste include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, selenium, radium, uranium and lead.

Q: Why is it dangerous?

A: If breathed, the dust will penetrate deep into the lungs and scar tissue. Over time, the dust can lead to various forms of cancer and long-term radiation exposure.

Q: When will waste from Silos 1 and 2 be removed?

A: That waste is scheduled to be removed in the fall.

Q: Why doesn't Nevada want the waste?

A: State officials say it is illegal and unsafe to bury the waste in unlined trenches with no monitoring to make sure radiation from the material isn't leaking into ground water. Officials with the federal government say ground water is monitored at the dump site, and that more than 20 feet of sand and rock will be piled on top of the material to keep radon gas from leaking into the atmosphere.

Q: Why dump it in Nevada?

A: Because of the desert. The Nevada Test Site is a huge area where the country's first nuclear experiments were conducted. It is a dry and hot place, meaning very little rainfall makes it to the underground aquifer, which by Ohio standards is very deep under ground.

Q: What happens if the waste can't be shipped to Nevada?

A: No one knows.

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