By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
If testing goes well today, workers should start Friday removing the so-called "drum mountain" scrap pile at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Don Seaborg, Department of Energy site manager, said a few of the dilapidated drums were expected to be crushed in a test run today following a readiness review Wednesday afternoon. The review included procedures, emergency response, environmental monitoring and other activities key to the removal, he said.
Seaborg said the test run will focus on safety and environmental issues, notably the extent of airborne contamination from the drums. Believed to have contained hazardous, mildly radioactive uranium tetrafluoride, or UF4, the drums were crushed decades ago after being emptied.
UF4, known as "green salt," was made at the plant in its early years as a step in manufacturing uranium hexafluoride, or UF6. The plant no longer makes either material, but continues to enrich UF6 for use in nuclear fuel.
"We're concerned about dusting and airborne emissions, and we want to treat that very carefully and properly," he said. "While I would like to have started this a week ago, I would rather take the time to do it right than try to rush through it."
A lag in procedure development and equipment checks delayed the work, originally scheduled to start June 5. The process involves sorting, separating, shredding, sampling, balingbailing and containing the barrels.
DOE, which has promised to have the scrap cleaned up this year, wants to have the waste ready Sept. 30 for shipment to an approved treatment facility. The entire project is expected to be finished by November.
Drum mountain, readily seen among the old storage yards in the northwest fenced area of the plant, covers only about 10 percent of the estimated 65,000 tons of scrap. It has removal priority because it is a presumed source of surface water contamination.
The department has been blamed for delays and having too few tangible results from spending about $400 million on cleanup at the plant. Speaking Wednesday to the Rotary Club of Paducah, Seaborg said DOE and state and federal environmental protection officials want to hasten the process.
Drum mountain is the first example of starting a removal project as soon as possible with a limited amount of data from records, testing and interviewing longtime workers, he said.
"In other words, do we know enough about drum mountain, in this case, to know with some confidence that we're not going to have a problem if we start the work?" Seaborg said. He added that contingency plans are in place should some of the assumptions prove wrong.
There are risks to the process, which Seaborg calls "characterization as you go," and some say the data are too limited. But if used on a case-by-case basis, DOE believes it offers the best chance of meeting a deadline of cleaning up the plant by 2010 with budgetary constraints, Seaborg said.
He said other potentially faster work includes removing the rest of the scrap, installing in-ground systems to treat contaminated groundwater, dredging a polluted ditch, and removing two closed, contaminated buildings.
Last month, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative and auditing arm, released a report accusing DOE of underestimating the total cost of cleanup at the plant by billions of dollars. The report and federal lawmakers from Kentucky criticized the department for not including all the work in a cleanup plan.
Seaborg said DOE has pledged to provide a more comprehensive plan including such things as removal and cleanup of huge buildings, and a facility to convert into safer material about half a million tons of UF6 waste stored in 37,000 cylinders. The GAO report estimated another $3 billion will be needed for those projects alone.