October 21, 1999
Risk of accidental nuclear reaction makes cleanup priority, report says
By Bill Bartleman
High priority is being given to cleaning up 11 areas of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant where investigators say there is a possibility of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction accident that could endanger workers and the public.
The potential for an uncontrolled nuclear reaction - called a "criticality" accident - was first identified in 1997, but little was done to eliminate the danger until a special U.S. Department of Energy investigative team visited the plant in late August, according to Dale Jackson, DOE's acting Paducah site manager.
"We failed to give it the appropriate priority in the past," Jackson said. "We have told our contractors to do a characterization of the areas and clean it up."
A 55-page report on the investigative team's findings was released Wednesday in Washington. It identified a number of problems, including the slow pace of contamination cleanup, improper monitoring of groundwater contamination and inadequate oversight to ensure that safety procedures are being followed.
The report addresses areas of the plant under the direct control of the U.S. Department of Energy that are contaminated from almost 50 years of operation. It does not include areas of current production facilities that are leased to the United States Enrichment Corp.
The report included the first public mention of the potential for a criticality accident similar to one that occurred Oct. 1 at an enrichment plant in Tokaimura, Japan.
Jackson, in a telephone news conference with other DOE officials, said it would take extreme set of circumstances for an accident to occur. However, he said that even the slightest chance of an accident is a reason for concern and taking immediate action.
Jackson said the highly enriched uranium that could cause such an accident is contained in component equipment parts that were shipped to Paducah from DOE facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Portsmouth, Ohio. At those facilities, uranium was enriched to a level as high as 96 percent, as opposed to less than 5 percent in Paducah.
Jackson said the component parts that contained the high-grade uranium were sent to Paducah for use as spare parts. They have been at Paducah since at least 1996, according to David Stadler, senior manager of the DOE investigative team.
He said the team's major concern was that until recently, very little attention was given to that equipment and to identifying exactly how much highly radioactive material was left in it.
Five of the storage areas are located within the USEC complex of buildings. However, DOE is in charge of removing the contamination.
Jackson said those five areas have the highest priority for cleanup because they are located in buildings that USEC is upgrading to meet earthquake standards.
Bechtel Jacobs Co., the contractor hired to oversee cleanup and manage waste, already has begun work to eliminate the hazard. The company estimates that by the end of the month it will prepare a cleanup plan and a schedule for carrying it out.
Stadler said two other major concerns of the DOE team were the lack of progress to clean up "drum mountain" and the need to improve oversight and training to make sure all safety procedures are followed.
"Drum mountain" is in the middle of a contaminated scrap yard located at the plant. It includes more than 5,000 crushed drums that are contaminated with radioactive material and some hazardous chemicals.
Studies have indicated that contamination from "drum mountain" is the source of groundwater contamination that has moved two miles from the plant site and still moves at a rate of one foot a day toward the Ohio River.
"Until you remove the source of the contamination, the movement of the groundwater plume will continue," Stadler said.
His report said a goal of removing "drum mountain" within two years isn't likely to be met because of inadequate funding by DOE. The cleanup is scheduled to begin next summer.
Stadler also said the investigative team found that both DOE and Bechtel Jacobs handled oversight of safety issues inadequately. As a result, the potential existed for worker exposure and accidents.
Jackson expressed concern about the quality of work being done by Bechtel Jacobs and said the company's work will be closely monitored to make sure safety procedures are followed.
At the same time, Dr. David Michaels, assistant DOE secretary for Environment, Safety and Health, said DOE shares some of the blame for the problems.
"There is plenty of blame to go around," Michaels said. "DOE is not exempt from looking at itself. We had a role in allowing a lot of these things to develop."
The six-week study of the plant is the first of two ordered by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Phase I looked at existing conditions and contamination issues created since 1990.
He said the 23-member team collected samples from groundwater, surface water and soil; interviewed more than 100 managers and workers; observed work activities and inspected facilities; and reviewed hundreds of documents and previous plant studies.
Phase II, which is under way, will look at issues from the time the plant opened in 1952 until 1990. Stadler said a final report on that phase is expected by the end of the year.
Michaels said work already has begun to fix some of the problems mentioned in the report. "The final report largely confirms the preliminary findings we reported to the Congress last month and confirms that current operations do not present an immediate risk to workers or the public," Michaels said.
"The investigators documented a number of weaknesses that perpetuate the risks and hazards of legacy operations and that the department needs to fix. But these are not insurmountable problems."
Michaels said the following actions are being taken in response to the report:
--DOE, Kentucky EPA officials and
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are re-examining current site priorities, schedules and funding for identifying problems and cleanup.
--Problems of inadequate postings at some contaminated sites have been corrected.
--Requirements for work permits in contaminated areas have been reviewed and clarified to ensure that safety rules are being followed.
--Besides identifying areas where the potential for an uncontrolled nuclear accident exists, workers have received special training on safety procedures to prevent and control such an accident.
--Two full-time additional DOE employees have been assigned to Paducah to provide regular surveillance of operations and safety practices.
--DOE officials in Paducah will have 30 days to prepare a plan of action
to respond to findings in the report, including finding ways to secure contaminated
buildings that were closed 20 years ago. The team said the buildings are
deteriorating at a rapid rate and create a potential for spreading contamination
to other areas on and off the plant site.