The state gave the Paducah plant a deadline to say how it would deal with the hazardous waste that may be stored there.
By Joe Walker email@example.com
The Department of Energy has until early December to tell state regulators how it will deal with about 150 storage areas at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant that the state says unlawfully contain hazardous waste.
On Sept. 5, the Department for Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation to DOE regarding a variety of indoor and outdoor areas within the fenced part of the plant. The sites contain about a million cubic feet of materials, including old production equipment, scrap metal, railroad cars, bicycles and empty storage tanks.
Many of the storage areas — roped off and marked radiation zones — are in the plant's huge process buildings and contain old parts and equipment. Outdoor scrap areas are in the northwest corner of the plant near the former "drum mountain" pile removed this summer.
One area specifically cited by the state is a section of a building called C-400 in the center of the plant. The building has been used for decades to clean parts and equipment and, federal lawsuits allege, was where hazardous and radioactive waste was illegally dumped many years ago. C-400 is known to be a key source of groundwater contamination.
The notice of violation says hazardous and mixed radioactive waste has been stored more than 90 days in C-400 without a permit. DOE failed to characterize the waste when it was abandoned in the late 1980s, the state alleges.
The Sun was unable to reach Department for Environmental Protection spokesman Mark York in Frankfort late Friday afternoon for elaboration. David Tidwell, an environmental engineer with the DOE Paducah site office, said the areas in C-400 include some drums, abandoned equipment and a "test loop" section where workers once checked components.
C-400 also is a focal point of a Justice Department investigation into claims made by one of the federal lawsuits. Some former employees have said the building once was an area of sloppy environmental practices and where workers were at great risk recovering highly radioactive plutonium and neptunium.
But Tidwell said that based on his knowledge of the materials stored in the building, he would be surprised to find any significant levels of radiation.
Although the state has not issued a fine, DOE could be penalized $25,000 per day for each violation of hazardous waste laws and $5,000 per day for each offense related to solid-waste management.
Tidwell said the department and the state disagree whether the storage areas contain hazardous waste.
"They're saying we haven't given them enough evidence to show whether it is or isn't (hazardous waste)," he said. "If we found anything hazardous, we would move it to areas where we store hazardous waste."
State regulators ordered DOE to immediately cease unpermitted storage of hazardous waste, submit a work plan by Dec. 5 and have "all solid and hazardous wastes" in the storage areas characterized and managed by June 1.
The notice of violation is the fourth against DOE in the past three months. The others were for not properly misting airborne residue during the drum mountain scrap-pile removal, denying access to a state regulator during the removal, and improperly storing a drum of hydrogen fluoride.
"We're working with the state of Kentucky to discuss these notices of violation," DOE spokesman Walter Perry said. "We take them very seriously."
Plant and state officials met this week to talk about the latest notice, and the state agreed to give DOE until Oct. 23 to make notification of any newly found storage areas, Perry said. DOE Site Manager Don Seaborg briefed the plant's citizens' advisory board on the situation at its regular meeting Thursday evening.
Seaborg told the Sun in May that he had sent the state several thick binders of information about the storage areas in an attempt to address its concerns. He said he was unsure of the extent of the trouble, but the areas could contain hazardous waste, and that might lead to substantial penalties.
Perry said Friday that some of the areas have been cleaned out and that others have been characterized for contents to determine whether they pose hazards. Still others are only partly characterized, he said.
"We've taken appropriate action to be sure we know what's contained within and are prioritizing outdoor (storage) locations where contaminants could be released to the environment," Perry said. "Plus we're checking these areas for nuclear criticality information."
A nuclear criticality is an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. DOE has acknowledged that 73 of the sites have slight risks of such an incident. Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, criticized DOE for lack of action regarding the storage areas, but said there would not be an explosion or release of radiation to the atmosphere if a criticality resulted.
DOE paid plant operator USEC Inc. nearly $5 million this summer to do a safety review of the 10 storage areas with the highest criticality risk.