Cleanup costs already soaring
The high cost of removing "drum mountain" from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site underscores concerns that federal energy officials have seriously underestimated the cost of the overall cleanup.
Cleanup contractor Bechtel Jacobs Co. hired United States Enrichment Corp. employees to clean up the 35-foot-high pile of drums. The work was completed in just four months, but the cost of removing the 85,000 drums reached $10 million — about 40 percent higher than initial estimates.
Costs ran higher than expected because "non-conforming material" — drums and scrap metal different from the drums containing mildly radioactive residue — were discovered in the massive pile.
Water that was found inside containers filled with shredded drums from drum mountain will add around $100,000 to the removal costs. The water, which is believed to be the result of condensation, was discovered when the containers were opened at a hazardous waste landfill in Utah. Landfill employees will have to take additional steps to ensure the water is absorbed in clay-lined pits.
It's a virtual certainty that cleanup contractors will come across a great deal more "non-conforming material" at the gaseous diffusion plant. DOE officials have admitted they aren't sure what types of materials were buried on the plant grounds or stored in various buildings.
In any case, all of the waste will have to be handled with great care, which means cleanup costs are likely to soar.
Keep in mind that drum mountain represents only 10 percent of the 65,000 tons of scrap metal at the plant. And the disposal of the scrap metal is just one component of a cleanup project that should include the removal of one million cubic feet of contaminated soil and 16 unused buildings and the purification of 10 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater.
The groundwater cleanup alone will be a massive and technically challenging undertaking. Three large plumes of contaminated groundwater are moving from the plant site, threatening the Ohio River and houses located near the plant's boundaries.
Federal officials spent about $400 million and nearly 12 years studying contamination at the Paducah plant. This strongly suggests the cleanup itself will cost a great deal more than the $1.3 billion estimate DOE officials offered earlier this year.
A General Accounting Office report released in April estimated that the total plant cleanup cost would exceed the DOE estimate by about $3 billion. The GAO report reinforced the conclusions of a fact-finding team appointed by Gov. Paul Patton.
It needs noting that, after months of foot-dragging, DOE recently has shown heightened interest in aggressively pursuing the cleanup. For instance, the agency's decision to seek proposals for facilities at Paducah and its sister plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, that will convert depleted uranium into a safer form was welcome news.
Still, the people of Paducah are under no illusions about the difficulty of the ongoing struggle to ensure the cleanup is adequately funded and completed over the next 12 years.
The project needs long-term support from Congress and officials in the Department of Energy. If the commitment from either branch of government flags, the cleanup will stall, leaving the Paducah area with a radioactive contamination problem that threatens the health of plant workers and plant neighbors and damages the region's image, making economic development difficult at best.
Cleanup advocates will have to redouble their efforts to prevent the removal of drum mountain from being an election-year highlight of a slow and underfunded process.