'Complex' material throws wrench into Park plans

Mary Ann Thomas
| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 9:12 p.m.

The rethinking of who and what program will handle the Parks cleanup began when contractors unearthed greater than expected quantities of "complex" nuclear materials last fall.

But just what are those "complex" materials?

Nobody is saying.

Complex materials are materials that are difficult to analyze, said David McIntyre, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The cleanup contractor says there is "sensitive" material on the site. That information is in an application Cabrera Services filed with the NRC in March 2 to amend its plan for the site.

The amendment refers to "emergent site issues associated with certain sensitive materials present on the site."

Col. Butch Graham, Army Corps of Engineers commander of the Pittsburgh District, continues to decline to publicly release details on the nuclear materials that have been dug up on the site, saying that the corps will release that information when the cleanup is done.

The corps expected to encounter a wide range of materials at the site, according to Graham.

"But we are finding more complex material more regularly than we had initially anticipated," he said.

McIntyre said, "Our understanding is that any 'sensitivity' relates to the initial excavation turning up complex material and more of it, earlier than the corps expected to find it.

"This meant that procedures for handling the material needed to be altered and security plans implemented and raised the possibility of a prolonged cleanup with higher costs," he said.

Site studies

Although no one is saying what is coming out of the ground at the waste dump, there are numerous site studies produced by the corps, the NRC and the company that owns the site, BWX Technologies, and previous owner, Atlantic Richfield.

According to those studies, among the more problematic contaminants expected in the trenches include fissile material -- material capable of sustaining a chain reaction. Such materials may have been used to create the highly enriched nuclear isotopes like Uranium-235, Uranium-233, and to a much lesser extent, plutonium.

Since the waste was buried about a half century ago, site reports have suggested that the barrels and waste containers have deteriorated and the materials commingled by now.

If some of those fissile materials are found in significant quantities, their presence might pose increased risk of contamination and nuclear criticality, which is the release of radiation. That would increase the danger to workers and require higher security levels and special handling procedures. It also would limit disposal options and greatly increase cleanup costs, according to waste experts.

"Once you get into Special Nuclear Material (plutonium, uranium-233, or uranium-235) everything becomes much more expensive in terms of cleanup and excavating," said Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and former senior policy advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration.

"The stuff is dangerous and you have to careful when digging it up," he said. "You also have to have all these additional expenses, safeguards, security, special reporting. The costs will go up astronomically."

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