The Fernald Cleanup
Key project may be scrapped
BY MIKE GALLAGHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The company cleaning up the former Fernald uranium plant may drastically alter or even scrap a failing nuclear waste cleanup process that already has cost taxpayers $72 million.
Correspondence obtained by The Enquirer shows there are continuing problems with a vitrification plant pilot project - a key component for cleaning up the most radioactive waste.
Vitrification is a process in which radioactive material is encapsulated in pieces of glass that then can be safely shipped elsewhere for burial. A full-scale vitrification plant has been the government-approved plan to handle 20 million pounds of radioactive sludge in two Fernald silos since Fluor Daniel Fernald (formerly FERMCO) completed feasibility studies in 1993.
In an Aug. 15 letter to Jack Craig, the U.S. Energy Department's Fernald site manager, the company's president, John Bradburne, said the company is considering changing or scrapping the vitrification project because of ''equipment reliability uncertainty'' in the pilot plant operation.
Scrapping the vitrification process ''has been discussed but no formal decision has been made yet,'' Energy Department spokes-man Gary Stegner confirmed. ''There has to be a backup plan if vitrification doesn't work.''
Graham Mitchell, chief of the office of federal facilities oversight at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), said a meeting is planned for next spring with the Energy Department and Fluor Daniel Fernald to discuss whether to continue with vitrification or pull the plug on the $72 million-plus project.
The Enquirer revealed last March that the pilot vitrification plant was in trouble and that the Energy Department investigation said alternatives should be considered. Fluor Daniel Fernald and the Energy Department staff at the site repeatedly have said the project is on track.
The company originally estimated the total pilot plant project would cost only $14.4 million. That cost now has jumped to $42 million, and is expected to reach $56 million, according to the company. Another $30 million has been spent for research and study of the vitrification process.
Repeated requests by The Enquirer to interview Mr. Bradburne for this story were denied.
Failure of the pilot plant threatens a timely cleanup of the nuclear wastes at Fernald. A full-scale plant is supposed to be built using design, construction and processing information learned from the operation of the pilot plant.
One alternative mentioned in Mr. Bradburne's letter would be to replace the full-scale plant concept with ''several smaller vitrification units.''
Mr. Stegner said the Energy Department is ''studying the concept'' of switching from a full-scale plant to several smaller units. He added that building several smaller units was one of several alternatives looked at several years ago during feasibility studies before the decision was made to build one, full-scale vitrification plant.
But Tom Schneider, Ohio EPA's project manager at Fernald, said switching from a single full-scale vitrification plant to smaller units would represent a significant change in Fluor Daniel Fernald's plans. He said he had not seen enough data from the company to determine what it would cost to make the change, whether the project would face additional delays if implemented or whether mini-vitrification plants would even work.
The idea of scrapping the vitrification process infuriates Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council, which represents 700 workers at the site.
By abandoning vitrification, the more than $72 million of taxpayers' money so far spent on the project ''would have been wasted and taxpayers should scream loud and long,'' Mr. Branham said. ''So far, (Fluor Daniel Fernald and the Energy Department) just can't get that project to work.''
Mr. Stegner, of the Energy Department, said if vitrification is eliminated alternatives would be considered, including encasing the material in cement.
Fluor Daniel Fernald in February proposed encasing wastes from a third silo in cement rather than vitrifying it.
In its initial plans - approved by U.S. EPA and the Energy Department in 1993 - the company agreed it would vitrify the Silo 3 waste, along with the more radioactive and dangerous contents of Silos 1 and 2.
Cementation has been used successfully at many Energy Department cleanup sites. It is far less costly and less time consuming than vitrification but provides only a fraction of the protection from radiation and radon emissions because of the porous nature of cement, said Mr. Schneider. ''That proposal is on the table and is currently under review,'' he said.
Fluor Daniel began work on a $2 billion government contract to oversee cleanup of the former uranium processing plant in 1993. From the beginning the vitrification project has been plagued by design, construction and operating problems.
Last year, the company said it could meet a U.S. EPA deadline of this Monday to complete a design project after testing the pilot plant by running non-radioactive material through it.
The company ''will not meet the Sept. 30 deadline set by EPA,'' said Mr. Stegner of the Energy Department. ''The pilot plant is not working as a complete unit. There are problems there.''
The biggest problems are the pumps and piping used to move the non-radioactive material through the pilot plant to the melters, where it would then be super-heated with other additives to vitrify it, said OEPA's Mr. Schneider.
''They've also had problems with the way pipes were designed,'' he added. ''Some of the pipes were put in with 90-degree angles and that's prevented material from flowing through properly.''
''We have to have a way to get the material from inside the silos to whatever treatment system we use, whether that's vitrification, cementation or anything else,'' Mr. Schneider said. ''This is a major problem and it has to be addressed.''
Despite the continuing design, mechanical and operability problems that have prevented completion of the pilot plant, the company still says it can complete the non-radioactive material test in January. It also says it will complete the entire pilot project in 1998.
In a faxed response to Enquirer questions, the company's public relations office said: ''We will review all information gathered to date and determine the most appropriate path forward.''
Whether one full-scale plant or several mini-vitrification plants are later built, the project's overall costs are conservatively estimated to be more than $240 million, according to company and Energy Department records.
PILOT PLANT TIMELINE
1992: Energy Department selects FERMCO, a company formed by Irvine, Calif.-based Fluor Daniel, as new manager of Fernald site. The $2.2 billion contract is hailed as a model for cleaning up other nuclear weapon sites.
1994: Among other site cleanup projects, FERMCO begins building a pilot vitrification plant to test a process that will encapsulate 20 million pounds of nuclear waste in two silos in glass. Construction problems surface immediately.
Sept. 15, 1994: FERMCO officials issue report after finding that subcontractor used unqualified welders, installed inadequate reinforcing bars in radiation-shielding wall, and the wrong joint in a stabilizing footer.
Sept. 22, 1994: A FERMCO engineer discovers another incident of a radiation-shielding wall built without the required number of reinforcing bars needed to support it. FERMCO tells subcontractor to drill into wall and insert dowel rods as a way to fix problem.
Oct. 24, 1994: FERMCO subcontractor installs anchor bolts into concrete wall and more than 15 feet of the wall cracks and concrete forms tilt.
Dec. 13, 1994: Tons of structural steel were installed and erected without the required protective coating, in violation of design specifications, a FERMCO report reveals.
May 12, 1995: Welds on a pilot plant tank are found to be defective and do not meet design specifications. Repairs are ordered. Latest of a long history of welding problems discovered at the pilot plant.
June 15, 1995: FERMCO misses its original pilot plant completion deadline due to construction, design and other problems. The company tells the U.S. Department of Energy that new construction completion date will be Jan. 29, 1996.
June 22, 1995: FERMCO sends letter to R.E. Schweitzer Construction Co. ordering it to stop all welding on pilot plant tanks because unqualified welder was found working on them.
June 26, 1995: FERMCO officials detail numerous new problems discovered in construction of pilot plant, including faulty weld reinforcements and mismatched bottom shell plates of tank. Orders given to subcontractor to start submitting written repair procedures instead of verbal ones.
July 3, 1995: FERMCO misses deadline of starting non-radioactive testing of the pilot plant. Company officials say problems leading to delay should be fixed for a new test date of March 15, 1996.
Aug. 25, 1995: FERMCO officials issue a report revealing that a subcontractor employee was forced to cut through a pipe to replace a broken gasket below a metal tank that will eventually hold radioactive material. Company quality control specialist says more pipe cutting may occur since design is flawed and that is only way to get to some gaskets.
Nov. 27, 1995: The Enquirer reveals that construction, design and equipment problems could delay start-up of nuclear testing process by up to 17 months.
Nov. 28, 1995: Thomas Grumbly, then the Energy Department's assistant secretary for environmental management, calls for an investigation of FERMCO's troubles with the pilot plant. Mr. Grumbly says FERMCO deceived the Energy Department about extent of problems.
Jan. 29, 1996: Promise by FERMCO officials to have construction of pilot plant completed is not met. Work to fix problems and complete work continues.
March 1996: FERMCO again fails to complete construction of pilot plant - as it promised the Energy Department - due to ongoing problems.
May 17, 1996: Energy Department confirms Enquirer report that FERMCO's newest estimate to complete the troubled pilot plant jumps more than $14 million.
July 30, 1996: Energy Department penalizes FERMCO $810,000 for unsolved pilot plant problems for the time period Oct. 1, 1995 through March 31, 1996.
Aug. 15, 1996: In a letter to the Energy Department, FERMCO President John Bradburne says the company is considering several small vitrification plants rather than one large one. He also mentions the need to have an alternate plan in place if the vitrification project proves unsuccessful.
Sept. 10, 1996: FERMCO changes its name to Fluor Daniel Fernald.
Sept. 30, 1996: Fluor Daniel Fernald will miss an EPA regulatory milestone by not completing a design work package due to ongoing design, construction and operability problems with the pilot plant.
Fernald's vitrification project plagued by serious problems
Recent correspondence between Fluor Daniel Fernald President John Bradburne and Jack Craig, the Energy Department's Fernald site director, reveals ongoing problems with the vitrification pilot project and the possibility that it may be significantly changed or even discarded.
AUG. 15, 1996:
Letter from John Bradburne to Jack Craig discussing a ''replan'' for the site's vitrification project that includes switching from a proposed full-scale plant to several mini-vitrification plants. Also mentioned is the possibility of discarding the vitrification project entirely for an alternate option.
AUG. 30, 1996:
Letter from Jack Craig to John Bradburne warning the Fernald company president that EPA-mandated project deadlines must be complied with. Mr. Craig pointed out a significant regulatory deadline will be missed for the vit project on Sept. 30.
FERNALD'S VITRIFICATION PROJECT PROBLEMS
The report that Energy Department and Fluor Daniel Fernald officials are considering revamping or even eliminating the site's vitrification project is the latest in a cascade of problems that have been reported since The Enquirer first broke the story on Feb. 11. Company officials have repeatedly denied or downplayed Enquirer reports detailing the project's troubles.
Feb. 11-14: The Enquirer revealed that Fluor Daniel Fernald and its parent company, Fluor Daniel Inc., have cheated the government out of millions of dollars, jeopardized the safety of workers and neighbors, and have wasted millions on a problem-plagued vitrification project at the Fernald site. The series also reported that taxpayers footed the bill for $16 million in severance pay to 476 private employees of the company in 1993 and 1995 as a way to reduce the Fernald workforce.
Feb. 13: A secret plan was being developed by Fluor Daniel Fernald to change two major aspects of the proposed vitrification process, that, if implemented, would increase the cost of the entire vitrification project by tens of millions of dollars. The company's then-president denied the Enquirer's report, saying no such plan was being studied or developed. One week later, the company admitted the studies were being done, and implementation would increase the project's cost by millions, but declared it wasn't really a secret.
March 3: Life-threatening structural defects were ignored and covered up by Fluor Daniel Fernald employees in the construction of the vitrification pilot plant, The Enquirer reported. Hundreds of internal company documents obtained by the newspaper revealed the problems. Despite the records - and statements by the vice president of the construction company working on the plant verifying the problems - Fluor Daniel Fernald officials downplayed the seriousness of the report and said they found ''no merit'' to the newspaper's claims.
March 25: A special Energy Department investigative team found the Fluor Daniel Fernald pilot vitrification plant project was riddled with design, schedule and construction problems that would substantially escalate the project's multimillion-dollar costs. The team noted numerous safety problems with the plant, confirming The Enquirer's March 3 report. The team, in its report, noted for the first time that the Fernald vitrification project was so problem-plagued that the Energy Department should possibly consider scrapping vitrification and research alternate cleanup methods.
May 17: The pricetag for the pilot cleanup plant jumped an additional $14 million because of design, construction and testing problems. Fluor Daniel Fernald officials, who earlier denied Enquirer reports that the problems would escalate the costs by millions, confirmed the second increase in the estimated cost since 1993. The taxpayer-funded cost of completing the pilot project is now estimated at about $56 million, an increase from the $42 million estimated the previous year. In 1993, the company estimated the cost of the pilot plant at $14.4 million.
Vitrification costs at Fernald
Taxpayers have paid more than $72 million toward this problem-plagued project.
Total project estimated costs
1993: $90 M
1996: $240 M (+)
What taxpayers have paid to date
Feasibility study and research: $36 M
Pilot vitrification cost to date: $42 M
Total paid to date: $72 M
Vitrification Pilot Plant
1993: $14.4 M - Estimate to build pilot project
1996: $42 M - Current spending
1998: $56 M - Projected total cost
Source: News reports
Published Sept. 29, 1996.