The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Thursday, October 19, 2000
Paducah, Kentucky

PACRO: Toronto firm expected to propose use of radioactive nickel
The company would build a decontamination facility at the gaseous diffusion plant.

By Joe Walker
After visiting a Canadian firm that makes plates for the U.S. Treasury, representatives of an area economic development group say they expect the company to submit a proposal by year's end to recycle radioactive nickel at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The Department of Energy must then decide if it wants to go ahead with the project, which would require altering a nationwide ban on contaminated metal recycling at its plants, said Don Seaborg, DOE site manager for the Paducah plant. DOE also is considering internal recycling and reuse of nickel and other metals, he said.

"There has been no final decision made here at all, but this is certainly a promising idea," Seaborg said. "I guess I would describe DOE's approach as cautiously optimistic at this point. There are too many unknowns for us to go any farther than that."

He gave his views at Wednesday's meeting of the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization, a DOE-sponsored group of area business and civic leaders designed to find ways to offset job losses at the plant. Last month, a few representatives of PACRO and DOE toured a Chemical Vapor Deposition Manufacturing facility in downtown Toronto, where nickel and other metals are converted to gas and recycled.

PACRO is considering hiring the three-year-old Canadian firm to build a nickel decontamination facility at the Paducah plant. The facility would create 26 to 40 jobs and, through the sale of nickel, could generate $8 million to $12 million for the organization to funnel into other ventures to produce income for displaced plant workers.

PACRO Chairman Ric Ladt, who went to Toronto, said no action will be taken unless DOE resolves the safety-related moratorium.

CVD uses carbon monoxide to create metal gas from which nickel and other metals are distilled for a variety of uses, including forms for the automotive and plastics industries. The company also makes currency printing plates for the U.S. and Canadian treasuries.

Although the nickel produced is virtually pure, the process gas is 100 times more toxic than the Paducah plant's product, uranium hexafluoride, and heavily controlled.

"This material, we've been informed, is extremely toxic," Ladt said. "But CVD has an outstanding safety record."

PACRO member Jimmie Hodges said the CVD plant is in the vicinity of businesses, schools and residences. "It's operating in downtown Toronto because it's been deemed safe enough to do that," he said.

One of the chief concerns is whether the process can adequately remove technetium-99 from the Paducah plant's nickel, Hodges said. Technetium, which came into the plant many years ago in uranium recycled from nuclear reactors, is a widespread contaminant in plant groundwater and other media.

The company has assured PACRO that it can remove technetium and other radionuclides from the nickel beyond detection, according to a PACRO report based on the trip to Toronto.

Seaborg said DOE has proposed that the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) Institute of Science and Engineering test the Canadian firm's process before a decision is made. The institute already has nickel samples and is set up to do radiological work, he said.

Federal lawsuits allege that the nickel — about 9,700 tons stored in a 25-acre scrap yard within the fenced area of the plant — is highly radioactive and a threat to workers and the public. In July, DOE declared a temporary ban on the sale of potentially contaminated scrap from its facilities nationwide after citizens’ groups complained that the metal could wind up in such products as children’s dental braces. State environmental regulators also have expressed concerns.

DOE is expected to lift the moratorium late this year or early next year, assuming health and safety issues are resolved. But some area environmentalists claim DOE promised in writing that any proceeds from recycling would be used only for continued plant cleanup. Sale of the nickel, estimates of whose value range from $40 million to $80 million, would recoup an entire year’s cleanup costs.

PACRO proposes a system to sell decontaminated nickel to manufacturers whose products are not in direct contact with consumers. Some potential uses are in military aircraft landing gear and parts of automobiles.

CVD has a subsidiary in Detroit and is building a plant there to supply tooling to American auto makers. That plant is expected to be running in late 2001. Another plant is planned for Reno, Nev., to make tooling for Toyota plants in the U.S.