By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
A small but vocal group vented concerns Thursday night about how the Department of Energy is dealing with large amounts of waste generated at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
"I don't think we should be bickering over prices ... I think we should have something for really long-term storage of what we have here," said Kristi Hanson, an environmental activist from southern Illinois. "And I'd say the less of it that goes off-site the better, because we don't want to be dumping on somebody else."
Environmentalists and plant neighbors expressed themselves at a workshop at the Paducah Information Age Park Resource Center. DOE held the meeting to get early public input for an assessment of the potential environmental impacts of characterizing, repackaging, storing, treating, shipping and disposing of the waste.
The waste currently stored is equivalent to at least 50,000 55-gallon drums. DOE expects another 90,000 of those equivalents to be generated during the next decade.
The waste, a combination of radioactive and hazardous materials, is stored in steel drums, boxes, overpacks, and a variety of other containers in more than 20 indoor and outdoor areas. The 20 percent of the waste that is kept outdoors is scheduled for removal by 2005.
DOE's Gary Bodenstein said information from the workshop will be used for a draft environmental assessment scheduled to be published Dec. 12. After a 30-day public comment period, DOE will hold another public meeting on the revised plan before it comes out in March.
The department faces tough decisions about the waste because much of it has low-level radiation, a small amount has higher-level radiation, and there are few approved facilities to handle it. One alternative is to transport the waste, probably by truck, to those sites, which Hanson and others vigorously opposed.
DOE already sends some waste to places such as Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the department burns low-level radioactive mixed waste. The hazardous components are incinerated, leaving a radioactive ash that is sent to waste-disposal firm Envirocare in Utah.
Leaf Myczack, an environmentalist who monitors the Tennessee River for the National WaterKeepers Alliance, alleged that the incinerator is unsafe and jeopardizes the health of people in Oak Ridge. Rather than ship or treat the waste, DOE should let an independent group determine the options, he said.
"I don't think DOE, having gotten in this position, is competent enough to carry on," Myczack said. "You've made a hell of a mess, and all we hear is you're going to make a bigger mess as time goes on."
People in the group expressed worry about the safety of transporting the waste, and the competence of firms elsewhere that handle it. Greg Shaia of Bechtel Jacobs, DOE's lead environmental contractor, said the facilities are thoroughly investigated before they are hired, including visits, talks with regulators and reviews of work histories.
"Before we send anything anywhere, those things happen and they get approved in the whole DOE system, saying this is a facility that we believe is competent to take care of what we need to do, be it treatment or disposal," he said.