Friday, March 21, 1997
Fernald contractor
loses big job

Pilot project stripped
from Fluor Daniel

The Cincinnati Enquirer

What The Enquirer found

Design flaws and cost overruns in the vitrification project at Fernald were revealed by The Enquirer in a Feb. 13, 1996 story - the third piece of the newspaper's initial four-part series on problems at the plant. On the same day, The Enquirer reported that members of Congress had called for the General Accounting Office to investigate the nuclear cleanup operation.

WASHINGTON - Reacting to a critical report about Fernald, U.S. Energy Department officials said Thursday they will strip Fluor Daniel of the most critical cleanup pro-ject at the site and replace the company with a new contractor.

The department also will move immediately to launch an overall review of Fluor Daniel's work on other parts of the nuclear cleanup project.

Energy Undersecretary Thomas Grumbly told four Cincinnati-area members of Congress that the department will pick a new firm with in four months to handle the vitrifi-cation pilot plant in Fernald Operable Unit 4.

The announcement from Mr. Grumbly comes two days after a General Accounting Office (GAO) report that criticized DOE and Fluor Daniel Fernald for allowing millions of dollars to be wasted at the site in the past two years.

A key part of the GAO report focused on problems with the vitrification pilot plant. The pilot plant was designed to encapsulate 20 million pounds of radioactive material, now stored in the plant's deteriorating K-65 silos, into glasslike pellets for disposal elsewhere.

Federal health officials say the radium-laced waste in the K-65 silos represents the single most serious health threat posed by the now-closed uranium processing plant.

Had the pilot plant proved successful, a full-scale plant would have been built to process all of the radioactive sludge.

However, an extensive Enquirer investigative series that began in February 1996 revealed that the pilot plant has been riddled with design problems and cost overruns. The pilot plant, originally estimated to cost $14.1 million, is now more than $56 million over budget and 19 months behind schedule. The GAO report confirmed many of The Enquirer's findings.

''We fundamentally accept the results of the GAO report,'' Mr. Grumbly said following a one-hour meeting with the Cincinnati-area members.

He added that the department is out to ''make the situation better.''

The closed-door meeting Thursday occurred in the office of Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio. Meeting with Mr. Grumbly were Mr. Glenn; Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park; and Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati.

After the meeting, Mr. Grumbly also announced that the Energy Department would move immediately to review Fluor Daniel's performance on other sections of the Fernald cleanup.

He said the review's goal would be to see whether ''Fluor Daniel is the right contractor to continue.'' That review is scheduled to be finished by the end of April.

Fluor Daniel, part of California-based Fluor Corp., won the $2 billion Fernald contract in December 1992. It is operating at Fernald under the subsidiary name of Fluor Daniel Fernald. The contract is slated to expire in November.

''What we want to do is fix the problems that exist and continue to move forward with the very strong progress that's been made over the last several years in cleaning up the Fernald site,'' Mr. Grumbly said.

''Fernald continues to be among the top priorities of the environmental management program of the Department of Energy. We are determined to see that this site is cleaned up in the next decade.''

Fluor Daniel spokeswoman Tricia Thompson said it was premature to comment on the results of Thursday's meeting because the company had not received any official word directly from DOE.

The Cincinnati-area lawmakers said they were pleased by the commitment that Energy Department officials made Thursday.

''We want to get this site cleaned up quickly and cost-effectively, and DOE's commitment today to put a new contractor in charge of the most troubled areas is a step in the right direction,'' Mr. Portman said.

Mr. Glenn had to leave before getting a chance to comment extensively on the meeting but noted that the GAO report also said most areas at Fernald ''are in good shape, on schedule.''

He added, ''The one area (vitrification) ... has not been satisfactory under the present contractor.''

Mr. Chabot said that even though the site is not in his congressional district he wants an end to the ''waste, fraud and abuse.''

Mr. Chabot added, ''I am satisfied that DOE at this time is attempting to make sure the site is cleaned up as efficiently and as safely as it possibly can be.''

Mr. DeWine said the Energy Department officials pledged ''to find the best (firm), literally in the world, with the technical expertise to deal with this (vitrification) issue. It is abundantly clear from the GAO report that the current contractor does not have that ability.''

The concept of hiring an outside contractor to take on the vitrification project has been discussed in recent weeks by various groups interested in the project.

Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council, said the union is not opposed to bringing in a new contractor because it is important to learn whether the technology really works.

In theory, vitrification remains the best way to dispose of the K-65 waste. A backup plan to encase the waste in cement is ''not acceptable,'' Mr. Branham said.

But so far, it remains unclear whether vitrification will work. The Fernald project would be one of the largest-scale vitrification projects ever attempted in the United States, and it involves a type of waste that never has been vitrified here before, Mr. Branham said.

There are other companies, most notably in France, that have more vitrification experience than Fluor Daniel, Mr. Branham said. The key, he said, would be to make sure any new contractor has full access to the lessons learned in the design and construction of the ill-fated pilot plant.




Unresolved issues

Thursday's announcement that Fluor Daniel is being stripped of the vitrification project at Fernald left several issues unresolved:

  • No one could say Thursday what, if any, companies are interested in taking over the vitrification project at Fernald.

  • Also unknown is how hiring a new contractor will affect the costs or timetable for the cleanup project.

  • No one knows what changing contractors will mean to the 40-50 union and salaried workers who have worked on the vitrification project under Fluor.

  • Also unclear is how much of the existing plant can be used by a new contractor.

  • Comments? Questions? Criticisms? Contact Greg Noble, online editor.
    Entire contents Copyright (c) 1997 by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.