The Paducah Sun

October 31, 1999

Company eager to begin cleanup

By Bill Bartleman
The Paducah Sun

Bechtel Jacobs Co. President Joe Nemec said he is just as eager as the public and Kentucky congressmen to get on with the actual cleanup of contamination of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

However, Nemec said cleaning up nuclear waste at any U.S. Department of Energy site is not an easy, speedy or inexpensive task. Bechtel Jacobs has a contract with DOE to plan and oversee the environmental cleanup at the plant where uranium has been enriched for use as a nuclear fuel since 1952.

"We don't get our jollies out of paperwork and studies," Nemec said in an interview while visiting Paducah on Friday. "We get our jollies out of doing actual cleanup work and seeing things happen. Our focus is on completion of work, not continuing on with the process of planning the work."

Bechtel Jacobs, the environmental contractor at the plant since April 1998, has drawn criticism for what some say is the slow progress of cleanup. The company has also been criticized in a DOE report for not giving proper oversight to seeing that some of its subcontractors follow safety procedures.

Bechtel Jacobs has already begun taking action to respond to the DOE report. A final action plan will be delivered to DOE next month.

Nemec said a change in site managers will provide a new perspective for the company's work. On Thursday, he announced that longtime plant employee Jimmy Massey was being reassigned. Effective Monday, he'll be replaced by Gordon Dover, a Bechtel Jacobs official currently in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Nemec said the change was made after extensive discussions he had with Massey.

"We've had discussion over the past two months about what might have to be done, and whether it was appropriate for him to move on to something else," Nemec said. "We talked about the benefit of having a fresh set of eyes to look at things. He basically concluded that making a change was the right thing to do and that making a change was appropriate.

"I admire him for his professional attitude and looking ahead for the betterment of the job that has to be done. Jimmy did an excellent job, and I am very supportive of him. We will have a major assignment for him in our organization."

For the next few months, Massey will stay at Paducah and help Dover make the transition. He'll also help implement the plan to correct safety concerns of DOE.

In the interview, Nemec also talked about criticism that $388 million has been spent and that very little actual cleanup has taken place.

"There is a lot of money that must be spent up front," Nemec said. "It isn't spent just on paperwork. We have to drill wells and take samples to understand the scope of the contamination, do engineering studies to determine the corrective action, and then get regulators and the public to agree to those corrective actions."

Also, he said money must be spent to manage the waste and implement temporary measures to stop the contamination from spreading while a cleanup plan is prepared.

In Paducah, he said, the early work included spending several million dollars to run public water lines to nearby property owners whose wells were contaminated and building a plant to treat groundwater that was feeding the contaminated wells. Also, there are other ongoing costs associated with managing thousands of tons of waste that has been accumulating for 47 years.

The cost associated with the early planning and remedial action is a common complaint in any nuclear cleanup, Nemec said. He said it is necessary to protect the health and safety of workers and the community.

"In the early years of this type of work, you might spend only 25 percent or so on actual cleanup and the rest on planning and waste management. But when we get through the planning stage, that will change to 75 or 80 percent on cleanup."

Since cleanup of the Paducah plant began in 1988, DOE officials estimate that only one-third has gone for actual cleanup. In some years, DOE officials say that planning and compliance with regulations consumed 89 percent of the funds.

Those figures have drawn sharp criticism from U.S. Sens. Jim Bunning and Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, who said too much is being spent on paperwork and too little on cleanup.

The members of Kentucky's congressional delegation also are concerned that DOE has not been aggressive in seeking the funds to meet a 2010 deadline for removing the major waste from the Paducah site.

Nemec said the 2010 deadline can be met if DOE keeps up with an annual funding schedule that calls for a peak spending of more than $160 million in 2008. In that year, he said, more than 80 percent would be used for actual cleanup.

Nemec said the current cleanup work is on schedule.

The first major cleanup project will be a portion of a metal scrap yard that contains more than 5,000 crushed drums. Plant officials call it "drum mountain."

DOE officials promised McConnell at a hearing Tuesday that drum mountain would be removed by the end of 2000. McConnell was skeptical of that promise but said it would be a major accomplishment if that goal could be met.

Nemec said his company would do all it can to remove the drums but didn't make any promises Friday.

"We hope it is an achievable goal; that is all we can say at this point," said Nemec, adding that doing it safely is more important than doing it quickly.

He said engineers are aggressively working on a cleanup plan that won't be ready before the end of the year. After it is prepared, it must be approved by state and federal regulators and by the Site-Specific Advisory Board, a citizens' group whose approval is predicated in part on public input. Then DOE must provide the funding.

As long as there are no major objections, he said, a contract can be awarded and work can begin next spring. "We can avoid delays and make sure we do a good job of briefing people on our plan and a good job of preparing material to document the plan."

He said it is too early in the planning process to say what method will be used to dispose of the drums, but he assumes they will be removed from the Paducah site and taken elsewhere for proper disposal.

Another top priority is a survey of material storage yards that contain equipment contaminated with highly radioactive material. A special DOE investigation concluded that 13 areas had a risk for a nuclear reaction that could cause a "criticality accident."

Nemec said Bechtel Jacobs had prepared a preliminary plan and estimates for studying those storage areas to assess the risk of a criticality accident. Those documents are now being studied by DOE and have not been made public. That work project, like others, is not covered by funding for the current fiscal year.