Originally published Nov. 14, 2006
Part three of a three-part series
PIKETON — Over 50 years, as three U.S. plants churned out enriched uranium for atomic bombs and nuclear reactor fuel rods, workers wheeled giant metal cylinders full of radioactive waste into open-air factory yards where they sat.
As the cylinders containing depleted uranium hexafluoride accumulated at enrichment plants in Piketon, Ohio; Paducah, Ky.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn., other kinds of nuclear material piled up at federal weapons plants in Ohio and Washington state.
Meanwhile, a different waste product — dangerous, highly radioactive spent fuel rods — collected at more than 100 American nuclear reactors. With plans stalled for a deep-burial nuke graveyard at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, there is no permanent place to put them.
All of these problems converge at the Energy Department's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon.
• Construction is under way at Piketon on a facility to convert 20,000 cylinders of old enrichment waste, known as DUF6, to a more benign chemical form. Without conversion, the corroding cylinders could unleash poison clouds if breached.
• The plant is home to the Uranium Management Center, a storage site for 4,500 metric tons of radioactive metals, powders and fuel pins. Much of the material came from federal cleanup projects at the Feed Materials Production Center near Fernald and the Hanford weapons plant in Washington. The Energy Department contends that the material is valuable, but so far nobody has stepped forward to buy it.
• A Piketon-based company is pursuing a federal grant to study building a plant that would remove plutonium from highly radioactive spent fuel rods for reuse in an advanced burner reactor. The spent rods, from across the United States and perhaps overseas, would be stored at Piketon.
For many in jobs-starved Appalachian Ohio, these activities translate to the kind of middle-class employment the atomic plant provided for generations.
"Anything that'll bring in good-paying jobs, we'll accept," said Pike County Commissioner John Harbert. "The plant, it's just been a standard here since the 1950s."
Complicated claims process often ends in rejections
Groups fear Piketon will become dumping ground
Costly centrifuge plan key to Piketon revival
The president of a plant workers' union said it makes sense to consider other nuclear-related reuses for the contaminated grounds. "It's a nuclear facility. I don't think it's going to be a fun theme park in the near future," said Dan Minter of United Steelworkers Local 5689.
But at least two local watchdog groups have raised concerns that Piketon will become a new dumping ground, even as work progresses on a massive cleanup of radioactive and chemical waste from old uranium enrichment work. Piketon even was a stopping point for radioactive material from Libya's dismantled nuclear program.
"Piketon has been a sacrifice zone. We have become a national dump site," said Vina Colley, a former plant worker and president of the watchdog group Portsmouth/Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety and Security. "How can they say we cleaned up the Piketon site and then make a dump out of it again with tax dollars? Seems crazy to us."
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which has battled the Energy Department over a number of issues, doesn't want a waste dump at the site.
"We are very much opposed to them bringing in materials from other places," said Brian Blair, environmental supervisor for the Ohio EPA's southeast office. "This is not an appropriate facility to be a regional waste disposal area."
But the Ohio EPA can do nothing to stop the Energy Department from transferring radioactive material unless it is mixed with other hazardous waste. The Energy Department is responsible for ensuring that the radioactive material is handled safely.
William E. Murphie, plant site manager for the Energy Department, denied Piketon is a dumping ground. He said the Fernald/Hanford material and the 20,000 depleted-uranium cylinders eventually will be shipped elsewhere.
Conversion will take time, money
Before the depleted uranium cylinders can be shipped anywhere, they have to be converted to something less dangerous.
The cylinders — most from Piketon, some shipped in from Oak Ridge, Tenn. — weigh up to 14 tons and contain radioactive "depleted" uranium hexafluoride so corrosive it could eventually eat through the metal and release a toxic gas. Even now, access to the storage yards is limited because the cylinders emit radioactive gamma rays, subjecting nearby workers to radiation. The material is commonly called "tails."
The Energy Department hired Uranium Disposition Services LLC of Lexington, Ky., to convert the material so that the cylinders can be safely hauled away. UDS is building plants for this task at both Piketon and Paducah, which has a backlog of 40,000 cylinders. It'll cost taxpayers an estimated $2.9 billion to convert it all.
The conversion process creates hydrofluoric acid and uranium oxide. The hydrofluoric acid will be sold for industrial use and the uranium oxide will likely be shipped to Utah or Nevada for disposal.
The Piketon conversion plant is slated to open in 2008. Government officials estimate it will take until 2026 to convert the existing backlog of cylinders.
But the number of cylinders piling up there will multiply if the American Centrifuge gets off the ground. The proposed plant, scheduled to go on line in 2011, would generate 41,000 cylinders of waste over 30 years, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
With new enrichment facilities in the works, "the problem of these vast amounts of depleted uranium has suddenly become a huge environmental issue," said Arjun Makhijani, who heads the anti-nuclear Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.
Makhijani said converting depleted uranium hexafluoride is "very important for the public safety."
Uranium is waiting, but no buyers are emerging
The Energy Department is offering metal ingots and uranium billets for sale to qualified buyers, but so far none have emerged.
Most of the radioactive material was shipped from Fernald and Hanford to meet cleanup deadlines at those facilities.
Maria Galanti, the Ohio EPA site coordinator at Piketon, said shipping dangerous material between plants just shifts the burden from one community to another.
"It's kind of a shell game, more or less," she said.
The Uranium Management Center, which opened in 2000, is billed as a secure warehouse for radioactive material awaiting sale to industry. None of the material is high-enriched or weapons-grade.
A sales catalog offers descriptions of the excess materials, which include 55-gallon drums filled with powdered uranium dioxide, described as "virgin material, not containing transuranics or fission products." Transuranics and fission products are highly radioactive elements formed in a nuclear reaction.
"It's not waste," Murphie said of warehouse inventory. "It's material that is an asset."
One potential customer, Nuclear Fuel Services of Tennessee, evaluated samples and determined at least 40 percent of the stockpile is useless, according to executive vice president Steve Schutt.
"In essence, the (Piketon) nuclear material is orphaned," he said. "Too expensive to dispose of and, with no value to buyers, it has nowhere to go."
Murphie acknowledged that some of the material "has less economic value than others." The Energy Department rejected Schutt's company's offer to haul away the material for a fee.
Marketing all of the saleable material will take until at least 2023, according to the department.
'They think we're dumb'
The Bush administration and some lawmakers are touting reprocessing as the solution to the main stumbling block to nuclear power: what to do with plutonium-contaminated spent fuel rods.
Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. The Energy Department hopes to build a plant that would remove the plutonium from spent fuel rods, allowing utilities to reuse them. The recovered plutonium would then fuel an advanced burner reactor.
The Southern Ohio Nuclear Integration Cooperative (SONIC) has applied for a $5 million federal grant to study building the reprocessing plant and burner reactor at Piketon. Fourteen groups are in the running for grants.
As many as 5,000 jobs could be created, said SONIC founder Gregory Simonton. He said SONIC doesn't want to turn the site into a dump; the goal is safe reindustrialization. SONIC officials say they would also consider other uses for the site, including a next-generation nuclear reactor or a coal-fired power plant.
"It's really important to us that we do a good job, a responsible job, to ensure that any job we do is safe," Simonton said.
U.S. Rep. David Hobson, R-Springfield, is leading the reprocessing effort in Congress as chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. He said the work is "not unsafe" and would provide good jobs, but the decision on whether to seek a plant is ultimately up to the residents of Piketon. "I want to see what they want to do," Hobson said. "I don't want to push it on them, because they'll push back."
Some of them already are. "They think we're dumb because we're poor and they can just pull anything over on us they want," said Tressie Hall, whose home is about a half-mile from the plant. "They always have."
Hall is a founding member of the Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which is launching an aggressive fight against the reprocessing proposal. Geoffrey Sea, also a founder of the group, says members have gathered 1,000 signatures on petitions with the heading, "NO NUCLEAR DUMP AT PIKETON."
The group doesn't buy SONIC's assurances that the plant would be safe. And they say they have another concern: terrorism.
"Where does that put us on the terrorist hit list now?" Teresa Mahan of Beaver asked federal officials at a Sept. 27 public meeting in Piketon. "Are we going to be in the top 10, the top three, second to the White House? What are you doing to us?"
Others have raised pollution concerns. The nation's only commercial fuel reprocessing facility closed in West Valley, N.Y., in 1976, leaving behind a mess that has cost $1 billion so far to clean up. Energy Department spokeswoman Meg Barnett said high-level radioactive waste will remain there until the federal government opens Yucca Mountain, now scheduled for 2017 at the earliest.
"(Reprocessing) has always been far more expensive and far more polluting than they anticipated," said Ivan Oelrich, vice president for strategic security programs for the Federation of American Scientists.
Pike County's top development official also is leery of Energy Department plans for the site, particularly if those plans include storing highly radioactive spent fuel rods.
"I know this is being marketed as temporary, but we know DOE's 'temporary' is like 100 years," said Jennifer Chandler, Pike County community and economic development director. "Their temporary turns into permanent."