The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, December 21, 2002

Radioactive waste shipments resume
Shipments had been halted over concerns that soil sent to the site could have been classified as hazardous waste. DOE test results showed it was not.

By Joe Walker
Bechtel Jacobs photo Ready to go: Bechtel Jacobsí Sam Leone verifies documentation on drums before they are sent from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant to the Nevada Test Site. The drums hold smaller containers, resembling milk cans, that have traces of ash residue from furnace work decades ago in making uranium hexafluoride.

After a five-month regulatory snag, the Department of Energy has resumed shipping tons of low-level radioactive waste from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant for disposal in the desert Southwest.

The Nevada Test Site received about 107 tons of contaminated aluminum ingots from the plant Thursday. About 28 more tons of empty contaminated ash containers were due after leaving the plant Monday by tractor-trailer. The containers, resembling milk cans, are stored in larger protective drums.

Stored for decades inside the 750-acre fenced area of the plant, the materials were discarded from the Cold War era. The ingots, or blocks, were left over from smelting to recycle metal. The milk can-like drums have residue from furnace work in an area called the feed plant. There men combined uranium tetrafluoride, or green salt, with fluorine to create uranium hexafluoride. That product then was fed through the piping system during the enrichment process.

The feed plant is identified in DOE reports as perhaps the plant's most dangerous work area, because some of the uranium was recycled from nuclear reactors and contained traces of highly radioactive plutonium and neptunium.

"The important thing about this is, we're resuming shipping and particularly to the Nevada Test Site," said Don Seaborg, Paducah DOE site manager. "It allows us to ship low-level radioactive waste. We didn't have a disposal path for it except for the test site."

DOE had not shipped anything to Nevada since July, when a review of past plant uses of the now-banned cleaning solvent trichlorethylene determined that soil already shipped to the site should have been classified as hazardous waste. Although the test site disposes of low-level radioactive waste, it does not accept waste that is hazardous by regulatory definition.

The problem stemmed from 114 boxes of repackaged soil shipped to Nevada in the fall of 2001 after having been dug up at the plant and stored in containers since 1991. Although there was no evidence the soil contained TCE, it came under greater scrutiny because of the plant's history of using TCE, a major groundwater contaminant, and the criteria used to determine if plant waste is hazardous.

"We determined we may have had TCE in more places than we realized, meaning that soil already disposed of in Nevada should have been considered (hazardous) waste," said Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, DOE's lead environmental contractor.

Shipments have resumed after a determination came from the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet, based on a review of DOE test results, that the soil was not hazardous, he said.

Since Oct. 1, the plant has shipped nearly 300 tons of waste, most from past practices and the rest generated from cleanup work, such as digging contaminated soil from a cleaning building where TCE was extensively used. Seaborg said the shipments "are a small part" of the vast amount of waste still there, including about 54,000 tons of scrap metal.

The scrap, particularly nickel, has been targeted by the Paducah Area Community Reuse Organization for a job-creating recycling plant if DOE lifts a ban on recycling contaminated metal for commercial use. The aluminum ingots are not allowed to be recycled because they have contents classified from work during the Cold War, Cook said.