Army Corps of Engineers cleanup at Apollo Pennsylvania site shows little optimism

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This was the first year of a potentially decade-long, $170 million cleanup of the 44-acre dump of radioactive and chemical waste generated by the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) nuclear fuel plant in Apollo and plutonium process facility in Parks.  Apollo, Pennsylvania is a small town built on the shoulders of the steel industry in the early part of this century.

Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) originally owned and operated the sites, starting in 1957. The Atlantic Richfield Co. and B&W succeeded NUMEC. The plants closed in 1986.

At the NUMEC plant, workers baked, shaped, cut, sanded, and molded material containing weapons-grade uranium into wafers and pellets to be used in nuclear reactors. A few years later, NUMEC built a second plant just five miles away in the small community of Parks Township. The Parks Township plant processed plutonium, an even more potent radioactive element.

From the beginning, both plants were plagued with problems. At both locations, sloppy operations and accidents resulted in releases of uranium and plutonium into the air, the water, the soil, and the surrounding community.

In the first few years, the company lost so much uranium — enough to build several nuclear bombs–that the FBI investigated whether someone was actually stealing the material and selling it to a foreign country!

At the Parks Township site, the company buried tons of contaminated waste from its operations in an open, unfenced field, where children played and adults hunted, just yards away from a housing development.

In 1998, a federal court awarded $36.7 million to eight Apollo-area residents who claimed the Babcock & Wilcox nuclear fuel-processing plants in Armstrong County gave them cancer and caused property damage.

This summer, the Corps excavated about halfway through two of 10 trenches where nuclear-contaminated soils, production materials, even clothing and other items was buried from 1960 until about 1970, according to government records.  As the Army Corps of Engineers shuts down most of the cleanup operations for the season at the nuclear waste dump in Parks Township, the agency ended up excavating only about half of what was planned.

Although the Corps planned to excavate at the site until winter, the agency announced in mid-October that it ceased digging and was investigating the alleged mishandling of nuclear waste by its prime contractor Cabrera Services of East Hartford, Conn.

The contractor violated safety procedures that are in place to prevent a criticality, according to the Corps. Although no one was hurt, an unintentional criticality is a nuclear chain reaction that can cause severe radiation exposure to workers and contamination of the environment.

“We have not dug up anything since that event,” Graham said. “We’ve been processing material.”

Although the two partially excavated trenches have been refilled and the water treatment plant winterized, some workers are still on site processing materials exhumed from the trenches.

According to the Corps’ work plan, contractors are sending the nuclear contaminated soil and items to Energy Solutions in Clive, Utah.

Graham stressed that safety is the Corps priority: “We told everyone at our last public meeting that if we can’t do this safely, we’re going to stop.

Source: Pittsburgh Live

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