Saturday, February 27, 1999
Radon gas levels way up at Fernald
Leaks from old silos complicate cleanup
BY RACHEL MELCER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CROSBY TOWNSHIP Cleanup of two crumbling concrete silos filled with radioactive waste at the former Fernald uranium processing plant has hit a snag ... again.
Two K-65 silos at Fernald are foreground.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
A protective layer of hardened foam atop the K-65 silo domes is beginning to crack, and increasing levels of cancer-causing radon gas are leaking into the atmosphere.
Department of Energy (DOE) officials say the leaks pose no threat to public health, and precautions are being taken to protect the site's 2,000 workers.
Even so, the sudden increase in radon gas levels is a surprise, said DOE nuclear engineer Randy Janke. We're seeing higher numbers now than we thought we would. We're getting to concentrations where we cannot just sit still.
Temporary silicon-based patches were applied to the cracks in November, but that material is not efficient at capturing atom-sized radon gas particles, Mr. Janke said. In a couple of months, once outdoor temperatures are consistently above 40 de grees, more effective patches can be applied.
Sealing the cracks could cost anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to more than $100,000, Mr. Janke said, depending on what sealer is used.
Until then, scientists say the escaping radon gas is nowhere near the amount that leaked before 1979 and caused an estimated 85 lung cancer deaths within a 10-kilometer radius of the site.
Workers' access to the silos is restricted.
Monitors check radon levels at Fernald every five minutes so we can get people out of there fast if there is a problem, Mr. Janke said.
At the Fernald fence, 300 meters from the silos, radon levels remain below an average of 1 picocurie per liter; DOE's limit is 3 picocuries per liter. The agency maintains a string of monitors throughout Greater Cincinnati to track airborne radon gas and ensure that it does not exceed regulatory levels.
Cleaning up the source of the radon gas the K-65 silowaste poses much more of a problem.
DOE has been sanctioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for past mishandling of the silo cleanup, which was initially scheduled to begin in 2002, when silo deterioration would have been less of an issue.
But initial attempts failed and the schedule was pushed back, with waste treatment and removal now expected to come in 2006. To guard against disastrous, total failure of the crum bling silos, the waste will be transferred in 2002 to temporary on-site holding tanks.
Meanwhile, DOE is still trying to find a suitable method to treat and stabilize the waste for cross-country shipment.
Officials expect to choose next month among four different technologies: two approaches to vitrification, a process that would encase the waste in glass-like pellets; and two variations on a process that would bind the waste into stable concrete bricks.
DOE tried a form of vitrification in its initial, $70 million cleanup attempt. But that failed when a small-scale pilot plant melted down in December 1996.
Critics say the project was rushed and used unproven technology.
Further, the melter accident could have been avoided if site manager Fluor Daniel Fernald had paid attention to a staff report that noted a fatal design flaw, according to the January issue of Science for Democratic Action, a publication of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The institute, based in Takoma Park, Md., is critical of nuclear proliferation.
DOE is proceeding cautiously before selecting a new way to treat the 20 million pounds of contaminated waste in the K-65 silos.
But the silos were never designed to last so long.
And a one-foot layer of bentonite clay injected into the structures in 1989 to prevent the escape of radon gas is drying out, allowing greater concentrations of gas to collect within the silos.
Once the waste is transferred to the temporary tanks in 2002, a modern system will be used to control the buildup of radon gas.
Watchdogs including Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH) worry, however, that each time the waste is moved, there is another chance for an accident.
It's a major concern of ours, said FRESH founder Lisa Crawford. (DOE) seems to have a handle on it. But we're going to keep watching them and make sure they're going to do what they tell us.
Members of the Fernald Critical Analysis Team (CAT), an independent trio of scientists hired to keep an eye on the silos cleanup project, see the two-stage process as a plus.
By moving the waste before it is scheduled for treatment, DOE can study its exact characteristics. The radioactive and chemically hazardous muck has not been disturbed since it was dumped into the silos in the 1950s.
Once DOE teams know just what they are dealing with, they can tailor the treatment.
It's going to cost a little more up front, but I think it will be worth it, said CAT member Gail Bingham. It's really the right thing to do.
In the meantime, Mr. Janke said the silo patches will be adequate to protect the public from large-scale emissions of radon gas.
We are nowhere close to an emergency level ... But we want to tell the public about these (radon level) changes we're monitoring, he said. We're not like the fire department. We're not going to respond just when there's a fire. We're trying to mitigate as much as possible.
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