Report: More dangerous radioactive waste near Apollo than first thought

A nuclear waste dump in Armstrong County where radioactive materials were 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, according to a report released earlier this month by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own investigators.

Much of the waste was produced 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.

The 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.

Homeland Security watches over nuclear waste dump in Apollo

When the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo closed, a nuclear waste dump was formed. When more "complex" nuclear materials were discovered, the Department of Homeland Security became involved. (Video by Andrew Rush; 8/12/2012)

And because no one knows exactly what is contained in the waste site, and how much of it is there -- information that became classified in 2012 -- efforts to clean up the site have been placed on hold while the Army Corps of Engineers makes a plan to deal with even the most dangerous types of waste.

For Armstrong residents who live in the area, about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh along the banks of the Kiskiminetas River in Apollo and nearby Parks, the slow pace of cleanup and concerns about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's handling of it has begun to call into question the commission's credibility and accountability, according to Mr. Casey. (Read our August 2012 profile on neighbors in the area.)

"I think people are willing to accept that cleanup takes a while, but when all this time goes by -- more than a generation -- when people don't know what's there, the scope of it and when the decommissioning will be completed, that uncertainty coupled with the potential danger creates a lot of worry," Mr. Casey said.

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 is awarded to a remediation company by next January, he said, work to prepare the site will occur throughout 2015 and excavation will begin in 2016. Completion of the project is expected 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, Mr. 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 be taken and preparations made as a result, estimates for the cost of the cleanup have risen 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 a total expected volume of 25,000 cubic yards.

But the records on which the corps based its original plan vastly underestimated the amount of nuclear waste at the site, according to interviews with NUMEC's former president and with one of the company's former scientists.

The company's former president also concluded that the documents on which the corps based its decision "grossly underestimates the amount of SNM [special nuclear materials] and special isotopes buried at the site," according to the report.

The former NUMEC scientist told the inspector general those isotopes include uranium-233, enriched uranium-235 and other radioactive waste, the report states. Uranium-233, along with highly enriched uranium-235 and plutonium, are considered "strategically significant material" in quantities greater than 2 kg because of their "risk or potential for direct use in producing fissile material or creating a fissile explosive," the report states. The Department of Homeland Security now guards the site.

The scientist, after reviewing the Army Corps' Record of Decision of its planned method of cleanup that had been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted that "it did not even reflect 5 percent of the material that was in the trenches, he approached the [corps] to communicate this disparity."

The scientist, who worked for NUMEC from 1960 to 1971 and was responsible for burying nuclear waste in the trenches during part of that time, prepared a report in May 2011 for the corps' contractor for the cleanup, describing what he knew about the NUMEC plant's products and services, processes and operations, waste and disposal of materials in the trenches.

He prepared the report for the contractor and delivered it before excavation began and nearly a year before contractors encountered the "complex materials."

Because what was in the those trenches was troubling, the NUMEC scientist told investigators.

In addition to nuclear waste from its own manufacturing plants, NUMEC accepted waste from outside entities, including several hundred drums of waste from the federal government's Pluto Project, which developed nuclear-powered ramjet engines for use in cruise missiles; waste from Westinghouse Astronuclear National Laboratory, where NUMEC was a subcontractor; and waste from other facilities at the special request of the Atomic Energy Commission itself -- even as the commission was also serving as the company's inspector.

In addition, the report states the former president "later learned that the company's health physicist, who was responsible for determining the amounts of materials in the drums prior to burial, was not very good and his measurements of the quantities were poor." 

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: or 412-608-3618.

First Published March 14, 2014 11:49 AM

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