by Pat Marida, chair, Ohio Sierra Club Nuclear Issues Committee

Shortly before leaving office as Sec. of Energy under President Clinton, Bill Richardson put a contaminated metals moratorium in place, disallowing radioactive steel, nickel, and other radioactive metal waste from being recycled and mixed with the nation’s scrap metal stream.

Imagine eating with radioactive flatware, driving in vehicles that are radioactive in small or large part, working with radioactive tools and living in homes with radioactive nails, appliances, and so forth.

Ever since the radmetal moratorium was enacted, segments within the US Department of Energy (DOE) have been trying to reverse it.

Pie-in-the sky proposals for “decontamination” of the metals by removing part of the radioactivity have resulted in studies (expensive in themselves) of the cost of a radioactive metals smelter and metals “decontamination”.   Shortly after Richardson’s January 2001 moratorium a Dedicated Steel Mill Feasibility Study was completed by DOE, projecting a cost range of $855 million to $2.9 billion for a recycling facility.

Consistently, DOE has been evaluating and generating documents on the possibility of the reuse of these metals.  The lack of a market, due to the moratorium and other demand factors, has prevented serious consideration of such a facility.

Enter: Cleanup at Piketon  Nowhere is there more radioactive metal available than at the sites of the nation’s 3 gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plants.  This technology is far outdated.  And these plants used vast amounts of electricity—a promotional movie impressed viewers with the fact that the Piketon plant used as much electricity as the city of Chicago!  New uranium enrichment technologies are far less expensive to operate.

The 3 plants were all built as part of the nation’s war machine making nuclear bombs.  The smaller facility at Oak Ridge, TN, was part of the Manhattan Project and is now closed.  The second plant at Paducah, KY, is still in operation, now enriching uranium for power plants.  Its operator, USEC, Inc., is being bankrupted by the expense of electricity needed to run the facility, and they are expected to announce closure of the plant in the near future.  The government-owned US Enrichment Corporation, which first operated the Piketon, OH facility, became USEC, Inc. when the company was privatized in 1996. USEC leased the gaseous diffusion plant at Piketon until that dinosaur was put on “cold standby” in 2001and finally closed in 2005. The lease on the closed plant was returned to the DOE in 2011. Taxpayers can now pay for the ongoing cleanup.

The size of the Piketon facility staggers the imagination.  The 3 process buildings cover 93 acres. The Portsmouth/Paducah DOE office is heavily promoting the reuse of contaminated metal from the site, which would turn a liability into an asset.  It is expected that 900,000 cubic yards of contaminated metals will come from demolition of the buildings.  Of this, an estimated 110,000 cubic yards is being considered “reusable”.

A Radmetals Smelter at Piketon? The DOE has been promoting the idea of building a radioactive metals smelter at the Piketon site since 2009.  Initially, they asked one of the citizen advisory board subcommittees to recommend a smelter to the full Advisory Board, which in turn voted in May 2010 to recommend a smelter back to the DOE!  This is one of hundreds of examples of how DOE manipulates citizen and public processes at Piketon and across the nation.

A more recent example of DOE manipulation is the PORTSfuture project. Billed as an independent study, the Voinovich School at Ohio University was given $500,000 (yes, half a million) by the DOE to study the opinions of residents in the 4 counties surrounding the Piketon site on what they would like to see for the future of the site.  While the town meetings open to the public put the recommendations of more nuclear on the back burner, PORTSfuture conducted an online survey and ended up recommending a nuclear power plant.  The study was finished in 2011, with the results published on the PORTSfuture website.  In 2012, a smelter, never discussed in the study, appeared on the PORTSfuture study website as a recommended facility!  When contacted by the Sierra Club, study leadership said they would remove the smelter from the website—with no hint of how it got there.  One more example of the long arm of influence of the DOE, extending sway over “independent” studies that they just happened to finance.

A smelter was added to the diagram months after the study was completed. 

Updated cost estimates to build a simple smelter range between $1.5 and $2 billion, while the value of the metals from the process buildings is less than half that.  The only way to justify the cost would be to bring in contaminated metals from across the country, turning Piketon into a virtual waste dump for contaminated metals and potentially polluting the entire area.

Another reason for DOE’s support of a smelter is that the availability of cheap metal could stimulate the prospect of new nuclear industry.  The radmetals moratorium was amended to allow radmetals to be used at DOE and nuclear facilities.

Piketon Waste Disposal:  The Sierra Club supports onsite disposal of the bulk of the Piketon cleanup waste, due to high costs of shipping offsite; ethics of dumping in someone else’s back yard (not to mention the opposition likely to occur from other states); inevitable accidents with shipping radioactive materials; delay of the cleanup and other concerns.  Cost of $668 million for onsite disposal compares to $1.62 billion offsite, while the number of jobs at Piketon would be more than double with onsite disposal.

A “citizen movement” has emerged opposing onsite disposal of the waste at Piketon.  This movement includes residents near the facility and local steelworkers. Steelworker opposition to onsite disposal seems odd, since jobs for steelworkers would be about the same either way, and onsite disposal would create many more other local jobs. DOE is not dispelling the idea of offsite disposal, in spite of the extra cost and fewer local jobs. Pushing hard for a radmetal smelter, DOE, if given an extra billion for cleanup, could decide to apply the money toward a smelter—where there would be lots of jobs for steelworkers.  Let’s hope that this possibility is as much of a stretch as it appears.

Radmetal Wrap-Up:  The Dept. of Energy is now moving forward with an environmental assessment (EA) to remove the oversight of recycling radmetals from the Secretary of Energy and place it in the hands of the undersecretaries responsible for each site.  All of Environmental Management (and Legacy Management) falls under Thomas D’Agostino.  There would scarcely be a call for this move unless it was motivated by a desire to recycle radioactive metals.  If the decision on this critical matter is moved down the pecking order, it is a major step toward having the nation’s radioactive metals put into the stream of commerce.  This is an action for everyone to note.  We expect that the EA will be presented for public comment sometime mid-2012.

With or without radmetal recycling, the image of the futility of nuclear weapons and power will stand in high profile at Piketon.