More Radioactive Waste in PA than Thought

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @ 07:03 PM gHale

A nuclear waste dump in Armstrong County, PA, where radioactive materials ended up buried in the 1960s and 1970s contains more dangerous weapons-grade uranium and plutonium than originally thought, calling into question federal oversight of the waste’s disposal and greatly complicating its cleanup, a new report said.

Much of the waste ended up created during the process of manufacturing fuel for commercial nuclear power plants and the Navy’s nuclear submarines, along with other nuclear manufacturing and decontamination processes, by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) and Atlantic Richfield Co. The Babcock and Wilcox Co. most recently owned the land before closing the plant in 1983.

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) report from the regulatory commission’s Office of Inspector General, in response to questions from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, to the commission, describes a record-keeping system of the nuclear waste disposed of in 10 unlined burial trenches at the 44-acre Shallow Land Disposal Area as incomplete, with many records apparently missing or superficially written.

And because no one knows exactly what is in the waste site, and how much of it is there — information that became classified in 2012 — efforts to clean up the site are now in a holding a pattern while the Army Corps of Engineers makes a plan to deal with even the most dangerous types of waste.

The Army Corps of Engineers had to stop removal of the waste in May 2012 after crews discovered greater-than-expected quantities of what nuclear regulators called “complex materials,” such as uranium and plutonium, at the site.

Corps officials are now creating a proposal for how to handle the more complicated and potentially dangerous materials at the site, and will likely present the proposal to the public in late April or early May for a hearing and a 30-day commentary period, according to corps spokesman Dan Jones.

After a contract ends up awarded to a remediation company by next January, Jones said, work to prepare the site will occur throughout 2015 and excavation will begin in 2016. Completion of the project will be in approximately 10 years, he said.

Monitoring of air and of groundwater by the corps on-site and by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the nearby vicinity — including samples taken from the river and from an abandoned coal mine beneath the dump site, according to EPA officials — has shown no leakage of any radioactive materials, he said.

With the site in apparently stable condition, corps officials want to take the time to clean it properly, Jones said.

“We are going to make sure we clean this site safely and effectively, and time isn’t a factor,” he said. “We want to make sure we keep the public as safe as possible.”

Because of the more-dangerous nature of the nuclear waste that might be present, and the precautions that must occur and preparations made as a result, estimates for the cost of the cleanup have gone up from the $40 million originally planned to as much as $500 million, he said.

The waste in the approximately 500-foot-long trenches, he said, lies as close as 4 feet below surface and up to 20 feet deep, with an expected volume of 25,000 cubic yards.

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