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Is missing radioactive material still buried in Parks?

| Sunday, June 11, 2017, 1:51 a.m.
Courtesy of Patty Ameno
Mike Zerby, right, and another NUMEC employee participate in a dig at the company's Parks Township burial trenches in the mid-1960s, looking for missing uranium.
Tribune-Review
Zalman Shapiro, founder of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo.
Tribune-Review
Hyde Park environmental activist Patty Ameno

A federal investigation into the aborted cleanup of the nuclear waste dump in Parks Township uncovered problems not only with that project but with past efforts to document what is buried there.

Unhappy with the abrupt shutdown of the 2011 cleanup, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, at the urging of local environmental activist Patty Ameno, called for an investigation by the Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

That 2014 probe found, among other things, that:

• The contractor hired by the Army Corps of Engineers mishandled radioactive waste dug up from the site, endangering the safety of workers.

• Undocumented waste from so-called “black” government projects could be buried at the site.

• A previous dig to look for highly enriched uranium at the site was inadequate.

The Corps' previous contractor mishandled some nuclear waste and unearthed greater amounts of “complex nuclear materials” than expected, according to then-Corps Col. Butch Graham. That material was so hard to identify that it had to be specially handled and was shipped to an undisclosed nuclear waste facility.

The report concluded that the cleanup was “beyond the scope of (the Army Corps') remediation process.”

Documents obtained by the Tribune-Review through a federal Freedom of Information Act request show that Zalman Shapiro, founder of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. — the company that created the waste dump — told NRC investigators that there was more waste in the dump than Army Corps officials estimated.

Both Shapiro and Tom Haley, a former NUMEC engineer and project manager, testified that Army Corps' estimates did not take into account undocumented waste buried at the site. Those radioactive materials, the men said, came from so-called “black” projects — programs so secret at the time that they were not recorded in official Atomic Energy Commission records.

Even NUMEC did not record those projects in its official company documentation, instead recording them elsewhere because of their secrecy.

Both men said they agreed to testify to warn the government of the scope of nuclear materials likely to be found at the burial site.

Ameno, 65, of Hyde Park also testified. Her collection of about 3 million pages of documents about NUMEC's operations, she said, indicates the waste dump contains more dangerous materials than the site was licensed to take.

The Atomic Energy Commission, which regulated nuclear materials in the 1960s, gave NUMEC “a wink and a nod to not only leave the nuclear waste in place but to take on other burials from other AEC sites,” Ameno said.

Shapiro testified that his company followed its license limitations but admitted to taking waste from other AEC sites. His company, he said, was told by AEC to accept the burials without question — and without payment.

Shapiro also testified that a dig in the mid-1960s, conducted after NUMEC came up 200 pounds short of highly enriched uranium during an inventory, was ineffective.

“The government inspectors on site did a lousy job estimating the contamination,” Shapiro told investigators.

Shapiro said up until his death in 2016 that much of the so-called missing uranium likely is buried at the dump, part of normal “process losses” incurred during various government contracts NUMEC filled.

That view of the dig was confirmed by at least one former NUMEC worker who took part in the search.

Michael Zerby of Washington Township was one of the NUMEC employees who worked in the waste trenches.

“What we were looking for was something highly radio­active that would set off Geiger counters,” said Zerby, who called the operation “rudimentary.”

Zerby said it's possible the searchers missed substantial amounts of radioactive material.

“There were inexperienced people who were on the job for two days waving a Geiger counter over material exhumed from the burial ground,” Zerby said.

“Did they know what they were doing? Absolutely not. Was it conceivable to miss quantities? You bet.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or on twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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