Thursday, July 17, 1997
DOE report: Warnings ignored

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fluor Daniel Fernald officials ignored the warnings of its own engineers that components in a melter might fail during a test, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report.

The parts failed on Dec. 26, and the melter leaked 3 tons of molten material, causing a fire and extensive damage to the $70 million project at the former uranium-processing facility.

Fluor is managing the cleanup of Fernald under a $2 billion, five-year contract with the Energy Department. The melter was part of a test facility designed to encapsulate radioactive waste in glass pellets, a process called vitrification. There was no radioactive material involved and no one was injured in the leak.

A Fluor Daniel Fernald executive connected to the project said company officials were "intentionally negligent" and ignored the concerns because they were more interested in keeping the project on schedule.

The executive, who requested anonymity, said company officials "intentionally left the concerns out of a Hazards and Operability Report where they should have been noted and where it would have alerted (the Energy Department)."

The DOE report, completed in February but released Wednesday, said Fluor's negligence contributed to the melter breach.

Investigators found the main cause was corrosion of "bubbler tubes" in the melter that helped keep the molten material stirred up. The testing was being conducted to gather data prior to Fluor building a full-scale plant to vitrify more than 20 million pounds of radiocative waste now stored in two silos at the 1,050-acre site. Fluor officials, in a written response, said:

"Potential corrosion of the bubbler tubes was identified as an issue during the design of the pilot plant. A team including project design engineers and technical representatives from the (melter) manufacturer discussed the impact of this issue on pilot plant operations.

"Based on information available at the time, including the expected duration of the pilot plant operations . . . bubbler tube corrosion was not expected to occur."

Energy Department officials in Washington D.C. in March stripped Fluor of the vitrification project, costing the company an estimated millions of dollars over the life the project. The pilot plant has been shut down since Dec. 26.