Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Fernald cleanup halted - how long is unclear

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

CROSBY TOWNSHIP - The work of removing decades-old radioactive powder from a concrete storage silo at the long-closed Fernald nuclear weapons plant has been halted before it could begin.

The U.S. Department of Energy, under threat of a federal lawsuit by the state of Nevada because of the government's plan to bury the Fernald waste in the desert near Las Vegas, told its contractor Monday to remain in "a state of readiness," but not to begin the removal process of vacuuming out the potentially deadly powder, dumping it in storage bags and placing those bags in steel shipping containers.

The government also has asked its contractor to estimate the daily cost of staying ready but not performing the work.

Con Murphy, senior closure project director for contractor Fluor Fernald, said the company can stay ready as long as the government is willing to pay for it.

That involves continually testing the machinery and computer systems that will be used to remove the powder and keeping computer operators sharp by having them use those systems on a surrogate material about once a week.

"Obviously, it's not a very productive mode," Murphy said.

He added that the cost estimate for doing so will be ready by the end of the week.

A report from an independent review panel of engineers brought in to monitor the cleanup and to advise a citizens group said a delay of three to five months could result in the waste remaining in the silos "for years," because:

• New budget, shipping, planning and contracts will be necessary.

• Key project personnel and trained staff will be dispersed in other areas of the site or find other employment.

• New staff and possibly a new contractor will not be invested in the existing design, leading to modifications or redesigns.

• New leadership on the national stage might question the wisdom of the project.

Government officials did not return repeated phone calls Monday.

The Department of Energy said in a letter that "efforts to resolve the (legal) issues ... have not yet been completed."

Bob Loux, director of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects, said those efforts haven't really started. Since Nevada officials sent a letter April 15 saying the government's plan to dispose of waste in the desert is illegal and unsafe, there has only been one conference between Nevada and energy officials, he said.

Government lawyers have promised to give Nevada a 45-day notice before sending any Fernald waste their way.

"We're not any closer today than we were in April," Loux said. "My guess is they'll eventually give us the 45-day notice and force us to go to court."

Lisa Crawford, president of a citizens group that closely monitors the $4.4 billion Fernald cleanup, said the lack of communication is most disheartening to her.

"Nobody seems to be talking to anybody else, and that's a problem," Crawford said. "All we've been told is, 'We're working on it,' but there's been no open dialogue or discussions in months. We're quite angry because we're between a rock and a hard spot, and it looks like we're going to stay there."

Removal of even more dangerous waste from two other silos at Fernald - also scheduled to be buried in the Nevada desert - is supposed to begin in September. It is unclear if that work will begin on time if legal issues with Nevada remain unresolved.


E-mail dklepal@enquirer.com

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