DOE waste facility at A-plant fight continues

By Tom Corrigan -

An attorney for the U.S. Department of Energy, Jason Sherman had what might be considered some bad news for opponents of the permanent waste disposal facility being built on site of what is commonly known as the Portsmouth A-plant in Piketon, formally the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Opponents of the disposal facility plan, who often talk about it being a radioactive waste dump, are pushing to reopen the record of decision (ROD) which cleared the way for construction the facility intended to permanently house debris from demolition of the massive but defunct uranium enrichment plant. DOE officials have repeatedly said reopening the ROD is the only way to stop construction of the waste unit.

But according to Sherman, DOE will not, and in fact cannot by law, reopen the ROD prior to the opening of the facility it approved. He said DOE only can we revisit the ROD if specific problems with the facility present themselves after it is open. Sherman added the rules governing such situations are “frontloaded” to allow room for public comment and criticism prior to the approval of the ROD. He even went so far as to say federal statutes block any legal attempts to force reopening of any ROD once it gains approval.

Sherman made his comments to the Daily Times during a Tuesday open house in Waverley regarding the overall plan to demolish the A-plant and open the acreage it sits on for industrial redevelopment. When told of Sherman’s opinions, waste unit opponents did not mince words.

“I trust DOE attorneys about as much as I trust any other DOE employee,” said Piketon Village Mayor Billy Spencer. Spencer has long been an opponent of the waste facility. Piketon Village Council along with legislative bodies in numerous other adjoining jurisdictions passed resolutions objecting to the disposal plan.

“They can reopen that ROD if they want… Actually, we’re going to apply more pressure than we ever have before,” Spencer said, bringing up the topic of hired lobbyists. “They just try to intimidate people. That’s how they operate,” he said regarding DOE. Spencer pointedly noted DOE pays Sherman’s paycheck. “What else is he going to say? We’re not just going to quit.”

“It’s not a done deal,” Piketon Village Councilman Dennis Foreman said regarding the ROD. “We deserve a public hearing,” he added, saying, as have others, the information sessions are inadequate.

“I think nothing is impossible,” said Vina Colley, resident of the grassroots group Piketon/Paducah Residents for Environmental Safety and Security (PRESS) and an outspoken critic of the waste facility and other operations at the Piketon plant. Colley has talked about launching some sort of lawsuit to block the waste disposal facility and Sherman’s comments did not change her mind on that front.

Other disposal critics have brought up numerous other issues from allegedly fractured bedrock to alleging plans allow highly contaminated transuranic materials into the waste facility. According to a Google search, transuranic material is anything that has a higher atomic number than uranium. During Tuesday’s open house and at a previous open house in Portsmouth, DOE materials stated “transuranic waste” will not be allowed into the disposal facility.

In an email sent to the Times, vocal waste facility opponent and activist Elizabeth Lamerson, who describes herself as a fence-line neighbor of the Piketon plant, said it is true the facility will not accept transuranic waste. But it will accept transuranic components. What’s the difference? Fluor BWXT scientist J.D. Chiou said the answer is mostly regulatory.

Fluor BWXT is the private contractor hired by DOE to decontaminate and demolish the plant site.

Chiou said according to DOE guidelines, radioactive waste which meets a certain level of radioactivity is considered transuranic waste and will not be allowed in the disposal facility, even though, he argues that facility could safely accept such items. Transuranic components are contaminated items, in this case most likely building debris, which does not meet the level of radioactivity to gain a classification as transuranic waste.

“To say no transuranic waste can go into the dump is a correct statement, but what they don’t tell you is that an unlimited amount of transuranic constituents, plutonium and TC-99, will absolutely be in the waste and buried in the dump,” Lamerson wrote in comments to the Times. “According to DOE’s ROD it states, ‘Waste with transuranic constituents can be placed in the (disposal facility)…’ Transuranic elements are present in waste stream. The fact that transuranics are present is justification for even more concern for neighbors.”

Lamerson and other critics, including John Knauff, president of the Teamsters local which works at the demolition site, also have blasted DOE and Fluor plans for tearing down buildings at the Piketon site.

“The company (Flour BWXT or FBP) has recently notified us that the DOE has moved up isolating (cutting off all utilities) in the X-326 (building)… Which means whatever is left in the building at that time will be placed in the waste cell,” Knauff wrote in a letter to DOE Secretary Rick Perry and shared with the Times.

Knauff contends the building still contains a large amount of process equipment once used for high assay, or high level, uranium enrichment. He further argues the building contains a large amount of transuranic contaminants. Knauff does note the presence of transuranic waste is normal for that building.

“There are also large quantities of other very hazardous materials such as PCBs remaining in the building, all of which will go uncontrollably into the waste cell if not removed before the building is isolated,” Knauff wrote. “In addition, because of the manner in which FBP removed certain equipment, they have made the entire 30 acres of the upstairs of X-326 a highly contaminated and airborne contamination area.”

Knauff alleges all that contamination “will be cast to the wind during large equipment demolition and likely contaminate areas of the plant site and surroundings not previously contaminated.”

At the previous open house in Portsmouth, Chiou and DOE’s Johnny Reising said water and dampening will be used in to control dust raised by any demolition. They also said that water would be collected and treated locally.

By Tom Corrigan