Green toxic waste barrels

Radioactivity is on the loose at nuclear sites in Southern Ohio and Kentucky. Two plants that are supposed to process rusting cylinders containing radioactive and chemically dangerous substances are not operating. These facilities need to be restarted without delay.

The Nuclear Free Committee of the Ohio Sierra Club has written to legislators in Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois and to others, sharing our concerns about the stoppage of work at the Babcock & Wilcox Conversion Services at the Portsmouth, Ohio and Paducah, Kentucky Nuclear Sites. The Portsmouth site is just outside the town of Piketon in Southern Ohio.

For over 40 years the gaseous diffusion facilities at these two sites enriched uranium – first for nuclear bombs and later for nuclear power. The uranium used in enrichment was in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). The enrichment process separated the less-than-1 percent of fissionable (therefore, usable) uranium-235 from the bulk of the uranium. What was left over is called “depleted” uranium, but it was still in hexafluoride form, an extremely reactive and corrosive substance termed depleted uranium hexafluoride or DUF6.

The conversion process at these two facilities removes the fluorine from the uranium, with the end products being uranium oxide – which is still radioactive but not chemically reactive – and hydrofluoric acid (HF). HF is of some commercial value and could theoretically defray some of the cost of the conversion process.  

The Sierra Club and antinuclear activists have long been supporters of the construction and operation of these facilities. Besides being radioactive, uranium in its hexafluoride form is highly toxic and chemically corrosive. Chemical reactivity is causing the cylinders that hold it to rust and leak. Many of the corroded cylinders are over 60 years old. There are over 24,000 of these 14-ton cylinders at Portsmouth alone. There are approximately 40,000 of these cylinders at Paducah.

We opposed the shipment of thousands of additional cylinders from Oak Ridge to Portsmouth as being premature, but yet they are now in Ohio.    

Conversion is critically important and needs to be resumed without delay because of the disintegrating cylinders. The DUF6 in the cylinders is a solid at room temperature. When exposed to air, it sublimes, that is, it goes directly from a solid to a gas. Any leaking DUF6 will eventually move into the air. Patching leaking cylinders may or may not resolve problems for any length of time, as pressure within the cylinders will quickly test the reliability of a patch. It will take up to 20 years working round the clock to convert the DUF6 currently at Portsmouth when the plant is operational.

The Portsmouth conversion facility opened in 2011 but has not been operating since March of 2015. The sister conversion facility at Paducah has not been operating since 2012. Significant leaks (including levels of HF 100 times over the limit) caused both plants to shut down, according to initial Dept. of Energy reports. There was at least one worker exposure at Portsmouth.  

On October 1, 2013, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director’s Findings and Orders to BWCS and Fluor-BW Portsmouth, LLC called for remediation of damaged and leaking cylinders at Portsmouth. According to this document there are 1,000 cylinders that are damaged and leaking. We have no assurance that inspections have proceeded as ordered by Ohio EPA in the above document.  

We are concerned that the conversion technology may not be workable. That would include the emission of unacceptable amounts of pollution, whether the facilities themselves have become damaged or not.

The presence of highly radioactive transuranic elements and technetium-99 in the DUF6 tailings complicates the conversion process and the measures needed to protect workers and isolate all byproducts of the operation. The presence of these elements could end or greatly lower any commercial demand for the HF.  

The contamination occurred as the Department of Energy (DOE) brought in “recycled uranium” and ran it through the gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge (TN), Portsmouth and Paducah for many years. The DOE also uses the terms “processed recycled uranium,” “processed recycled feed materials,” “special nuclear material” and “reactor returns” to describe this material which is officially termed reprocessed high-level radioactive waste, which is the irradiated (used) fuel rods of nuclear reactors. Reprocessed high-level radioactive waste from various sources came into the three sites from as early as 1953 to as late as 1976, contaminating the entirety of the gaseous diffusion process buildings at Oak Ridge, Paducah and Portsmouth with plutonium and other transuranics and their decay elements. Paducah is the most contaminated, receiving approximately 100,000 tons of reprocessed high-level radioactive waste containing an estimated 328 grams of plutonium, 18.4 kilograms of neptunium and 661 kilograms of technetium-99.  

Two reports, the September 29, 1999 “Past Recycled Uranium Programs Under Review as Energy Department Investigation Continues” and the October 2000 “Strategy for Characterizing Transuranics and Technetium Contamination in Depleted UF6 Cylinders” note that the cylinders that are most likely to have the highest levels of the contaminants of concern and thus have the highest priority for characterization are an estimated 9,100 cylinders generated at Paducah.

We have other questions about the conversion operations at Portsmouth and Paducah, including proper disposition of the final products of the operation, uranium dioxide and hydrofluoric acid, both of which are contaminated with transuranics and technetium.

The immediate focus should be to get the conversion process operating again. The situation is ripe for a serious radiological accident that could contaminate an extensive area. This should be a top priority for the Department of Energy.

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