By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
The delay happened as reporters and officials of the U.S. Department of Energy watched the first of what is expected to be more than 3,000 loads of rusty drums dumped onto a conveyor belt, which carried the drums to a crusher and baler.
The baler problem, however, was minor and part of expected start-up problems with the $8 million project.
Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, environmental cleanup contractor for DOE, said a safety limit switch automatically shut down the equipment when it detected a door was not closed. He said the door was ajar because it was blocked by debris from the crushing machine.
Workers removed the debris and reviewed procedures to make sure it wouldn't be a recurring problem, Cook said. It delayed work for about two hours.
Drum mountain is one of the most visible signs of the years of scrap material that has accumulated at the uranium enrichment plant, which opened in 1952. It is a 35-foot-high pile of crushed and rusted drums once used to store depleted uranium tetrafluoride, or UF4. There are about 85,000 drums in the pile that covers a 120-foot-by-200-foot section of the scrap pile.
The start of work has been delayed for three weeks while workers double-checked equipment and environmental safeguards.
"This is a big day for us," said Don Seaborg, DOE's Paducah site manager. "We did a lot of work in preparation and a lot of work in checking safety procedures. We had some delays ... but wanted to make sure we were doing this right."
The work is being done by USEC Inc. under the direction of Bechtel Jacobs. USEC also operates the enrichment plant but is doing the cleanup work under a separate contract.
"Drum mountain is a big priority for us," Seaborg said as a front-end loader prepared to dump the first load of drums onto the conveyor belt. "That mountain and the possible burial ground beneath it make up one of the big sources of groundwater contamination we have at this facility. We want to get under it to find out what's going on."
The equipment crushes the drums and compresses them into 550-pound bales that are 12 inches high, 12 inches wide and 2 feet long. They are then placed in containers that will be sealed and sent by rail to Utah for disposal by Envirocare.
The baling work is expected to be completed by September, and all the material is expected to be shipped to Utah by the end of the year, said Gordon Dover, Bechtel Jacobs site manager.
Dover said workers are visually inspecting the material as it moves along the conveyor belt to the crusher. "We want to make sure that the only thing we are crushing is drums, drum lids and drum rings," he said. He said any other material found will be removed and disposed of later.
Also, he said workers will take samples of the scrap material as it is crushed to make sure it doesn't exceed contamination levels allowed at the disposal site in Utah. Initial testing showed the drums contain 0.2 percent of uranium-235. "That is what we expected and at acceptable levels," Dover said.
Also, he said workers during the initial stages of cleanup would wear protective clothing "as a precaution. We don't anticipate levels high enough to cause them harm but want to confirm that as we test the material."
He said if levels are low, the employees won't have to wear the protective clothing.
Seaborg said drum mountain is the first of what is expected to be several years of cleanup at the plant. After drum mountain is removed, he said, work should begin on removing thousands of tons of other scrap at the plant. That work, however, will depend on future priorities of DOE and funding by Congress.
DOE has promised the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet that it will have contamination cleaned up within 10 years. Numerous studies have indicated that the deadline cannot be met under current funding levels of less than $75 million a year.
Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton has asked DOE, the president and Congress to allocate at least $100 million a year.