Independence questioned

Researcher: radium study compromised


BY MIKE GALLAGHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

What was to have been an independent study on how best to remove medically valuable radium from nuclear wastes at Fernald has been compromised by the U.S. Department of Energy, according to the man in charge of the study.

The study was ordered last October by Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary after The Enquirer reported that the world's largest and most concentrated source of the radium was buried in 20 million pounds of radioactive waste in two silos at Fernald.

At issue is whether the radium should be extracted before the wastes are processed - which could slow the Fernald cleanup - or after it is processed, which some researchers worry may not be possible at all.

The Enquirer now has learned that the Energy Department has turned administrative control of the study over to the company hired to do the cleanup - Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO). FERMCO officials repeatedly have said they don't want radium removal to interfere with their cleanup schedule.

''What we are doing now is not what (the Energy Department) initially told us we would be doing,'' said Roy Eckart, a nuclear engineer and associate dean of the University of Cincinnati's College of Engineering, who was hired to lead the research effort.

''We were led to believe this would be a completely independent research project and, quite frankly, that's not what has happened,'' he said.

Instead of making a direct grant to UC, the Energy Department funneled money for the research through FERMCO. According to Mr. Eckart, company officials are telling him and his team that their research priorities are to look at post-vitrification radium extraction methods.

Mr. Eckart said a truly independent research project would look at all radium extraction methods at the same time and then conduct tests to determine the best, safest and most cost-effective way to obtain the radium.

''A (direct) grant would have allowed us to conduct a complete and autonomous research project and then nobody else could have had an impact on the findings,'' Mr. Eckart said. ''But now we are being directed as to what we should research . . . and that is not an independent project.''

Jack Craig, the Energy Department's director at Fernald, said he understands why some people might think FERMCO and the department are ''steering'' the radium research.

''But I don't think that's true,'' Mr. Craig said. ''Prior to the radium issue, we already had an agreement in place with the Alliance of Ohio Universities that they would conduct whatever research that we needed to have done at Fernald.

''That system was developed where FERMCO would set up and oversee the contracts with (various research teams),'' Mr. Craig added. ''It just made sense to use this same mechanism for this research.''

The radium is medically valuable because of recent breakthroughs in cancer research using radium-based isotopes. The radium is preferred by the researchers because it can be attached to an antibody and sent through the bloodstream directly to cancer cells. Because the radium stays in the body only a short time, it can kill the cancer without damaging other healthy cells.

Nuclear physicists and chemical extraction experts, including the Energy Department's own nuclear waste experts, say the best and most cost-effective method of removing Fernald's radium would be pre-vitrification.

Those experts - including some at the government's Oak Ridge (Tenn.) nuclear site - say that while there are known extraction methods to remove the radium from pre-vitrified waste, there are no known methods to extract it after it has been encapsulated in the glass form.

The experts also say that while it is possible that a ''post-vitrification'' extraction method could be developed, it would probably take years of research and cost millions of dollars more to create a workable process than using the known, pre-vitrification extraction methods.

Published Feb. 13, 1996.