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  • Group proposes selling scrap metal from Piketon plant

    Thursday, October 21, 1999

    By Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Energy might allow a local economic-development group to sell off potentially radioactive scrap metal from the grounds of a uranium-enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio.

    However, the scrap-metal initiative is on hold pending the outcome of a federal investigation into uranium shipments contaminated with plutonium that were delivered to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant during the Cold War.

    According to a Sept. 9 memo from an Energy Department official to Greg Simonton, executive director of the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, the department is "examining the potential of transferring scrap metals and personal property'' to SODI.

    The group would have "to insure appropriate environmental, safety and health considerations are taken in relation to working on-site and handling of the material,'' according to the letter signed by Piketon site manager Eugene W. Gillespie.

    But, "there are a lot of things we're not going to entertain'' until the federal investigation is completed, said Mike Dahbert, deputy manager at Piketon.

    Simonton said he's cautious about taking scrap metals from a site where weapons-grade uranium was produced for nuclear bombs.

    "We are looking to utilize any and all assets (the Energy Department) has, whether it is land, buildings, equipment or whatever,'' he said. "But we've decided we need more information before we proceed. We've just said so much is happening that is unknown, let's get more information and determine the risks and reward. We don't want to do anything that harms anyone.''

    The Piketon plant still enriches uranium for use as commercial nuclear-reactor fuel and is operated by USEC, a privatized federal corporation. But the Energy Department is in charge of cleaning up hundreds of acres, abandoned buildings and landfills on the 3,700- acre grounds.

    The diversification initiative is trying to create industrial sites and jobs in and around the plant grounds as the current operation shrinks and potentially is shut down within the next decade.

    Selling about 10,000 tons of metal from the site could be an invaluable fund-raiser to create projects and jobs in poverty-stricken southern Ohio, Simonton said.

    It isn't clear how much of the metal might be contaminated or how much money it might bring into the group's coffers, he said.

    Energy Department officials who help run a nationwide recycling program said the materials SODI would take charge of are thought to be mainly free of radioactive contamination. They are largely metals from tools, lawn mowers or carts that were not part of the uranium- enrichment process, the officials said.

    The Energy Department also is confident of its ability to monitor each piece of metal for contamination and remove any radiation detected, said Richard Meehan, who is in charge of the department's Oak Ridge, Tenn., facilities and its materials-reuse division.

    Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, said some scrap metals from Piketon were sent to Oak Ridge in the past, where they were sold. That money, and potential jobs from working with the metal, should go to southern Ohio.

    "If that is material that can be sold off, and it is safe material, I see no reason why it should be taken from our site and sent to Oak Ridge so Oak Ridge could reap benefits from it,'' Strickland said. "Any material that has potential contamination associated with it must be dealt with appropriately.''

    The ongoing sale of scrap metal from the closed Oak Ridge plant is being criticized by Republican and Democratic members of Congress and environmental groups. They say contaminated metal could find its way into everyday consumer products such as beds, baby carriages and hip-replacement equipment.

    U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler of Washington this summer declined to halt the recycling program, which is part of the Energy Department's cleanup of the former enrichment-plant site, saying she had no grounds to interfere in an ongoing cleanup.

    Although she didn't halt the program, Kessler said she is concerned there is no national standard for how much contamination can be in metals released in recycling programs. She said the "potential for environmental harm is great, especially given the unprecedented amount of hazardous materials, which defendants seek to recycle.''

    Some 100,000 tons are thought to be in line to be recycled in Tennessee.

    Critics say some metal might be "volumetrically contaminated,'' which means radiation is distributed within the metal and not just on the surface. They say there is no sure-fire way to ensure this type of contamination is removed.

    "It is difficult to tell what is going out of there,'' said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project, a Washington-based watchdog group. "Fifty percent of our steel comes from recycled metal now. They can't check every piece of metal that goes out and is recycled. You're going end up with some really contaminated stuff.''

    However, Meehan contended that the Energy Department sticks to "conservative standards'' in making sure contaminated materials don't get sold off.

    In fact, imported products made from recycled metal might be made out of more radioactive material because recycling standards aren't as rigorous in other countries, he said.






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