A First-Hand Account
By Terrall A. Putnam, M.S. (EH&S), MBA
Fernald Feed Materials Processing Plant was built in complete secrecy in the early 1950s by the US Army. Contract companies were hired to provide labor, and it was a good place to work. Employees of the plant were told to keep quiet about what they did there – we just told others we worked at a feed plant. This rumor was propagated even further by the plant having checkerboard squares painted on the water tower, leading people to assume that the plant was a Purina factory.
The workers there made uranium steel in the form of “derbies” and “ingots” as feed material used in the manufacture of atomic weapons. The site employed thousands of people over the years, but began closing down in 1993 after the Cold War ended, with the fall of the USSR.
I was hired to work at the site in 1994 as a contract radiation safety specialist and watched amazing things happen. The site looked like a city of windowless gray buildings, based on the no-frills construction of steel frame with transite asbestos siding and roofing. The structures were built tough.
Demolishing Plant 7
Once plant 7 was stripped of all transite siding and all systems and piping were cleaned out and removed, only the steel skeleton was left. A company known for its spectacular demolitions of big buildings was hired to implode plant 7. The building was approximately 80 feet tall and about 50 feet by 50 feet. The company provided a demolition plan that stated how much dynamite would be used to blow the building off its foundation, causing it to fall in on itself. The US Department of Energy ran the site, and argued that the company could not bring that much dynamite onto a USDOE facility.
The company had never failed to implode a building on the first try and had a perfect safety record. When the USDOE would not give in, the company agreed to attempt the implosion with less dynamite but made no guarantees. Instead, they made deeper cuts into the steel beams and structures to further weaken the frame. They placed the allowed charges on the beams and set the implosion time for 1800 hours Eastern Time to minimize the number of workers onsite at the time. When the charges exploded, the building shook and leaned over at a ~30% angle – and stuck there. As a joke, someone printed t-shirts that read: “I survived the implosion of plant 7” on the front. On the back, there was a picture of the now leaning plant 7 and the words, “And so did plant 7.” Needless to say, the DOE banned these shirts from being worn onsite.
Saving Money on the Great Miami Aquifer Cleanup
The DOE developed a 10-year Plan to eliminate all buildings and close the site, and we pretty much met the goal. One problem we encountered was that the Great Miami Aquifer, which flowed under the site, was contaminated with uranium. The DOE had an Advanced Waste Water Treatment facility built onsite to pump water out of the aquifer, treat it to remove the uranium, and then release it to Paddy’s Run, a creek off the site. The last position I held at Fernald was project manager working on the Aquifer cleanup and re-injection demonstration. We pumped contaminated water out of the Aquifer and cleaned it 10 times cleaner than required for free release to the creek. We then used off-the-shelf mining technology to re-inject the water upstream into the aquifer. This process essentially flushed out uranium and other contaminants. Once we found the perfect re-injection well diameter, the process worked like a charm. Calculations based on the amount of water being pumped and treated and released showed we would be cleaning the aquifer for 24 years. Using the re-injection process, the time was cut to eight years, saving the government over $400 million dollars.
Using Robotic Technology
Another cost-saving project I worked on involved two robots that were developed and manufactured to handle thorium that had been stored onsite for decades. The drums that one held the thorium were now rusted beyond usefulness. These robots were essentially fork lift trucks with no seat, steering wheel, hand controls or pedals. They were completely controlled from a panel with a joystick and levers that opened pincers. The pincers closed around the rusted drum and a plate was shoved under it. The device would then close, lift and rotate the drum 90 degrees making the solid top the bottom, and the rusted out bottom the top. Temporary tops were then placed over the drum bottom and the drums were placed on overpack containers that held four drums. Finally, a box-style lid was placed over the solid pallet style base and the flanges were bolted down. These overpack boxes were then decontaminated and taken out of the building for loading onto a truck and taken to Los Alamos.
After the robots were used, they were scheduled to be cut up and buried in the waste storage cell. I saw this as a great waste as the robots had less than 500 hours each on the hour meters and were still like new. I took on the task of finding a new home for them. We could never release them offsite due to the fact that we had no thorium release limit. That means any thorium at all is too much. We had to find another DOE site that had thorium that wanted the two $1.75 million robots essentially free. At first, no other site cared about them and I was told to keep looking. Finally, I called a friend that I had worked with at Fernald and asked him if anyone at Idaho National Environmental Lab (INEL) wanted the robots. He talked with some friends and called me back a week later, saying they wanted the robots and would pay for the truck to haul them out to Idaho. They would be used in thorium work and were considered almost clean to them. I called and signed a trucking company to haul them, and set up a time for a huge forklift to load the sea-land containers onto a flatbed truck. The trucks were loaded and the boxes were labeled and sent away. My project was completed in 24 days with a $0.00 budget, saved the government over $20,000 in cut-up cost, and over $50,000 in burial costs for Fernald. It also provided INEL with $3.5 million of technology for a total of $7,600 in shipping costs.
Turning Radioactive Waste Into Glass Beads
Finally, we built a small-scale vitrification pilot plant. It took radioactive waste, mixed it with “frit,” which is mostly silica sand, heated it to over 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, and turned the whole mix into glass beads, which can safely be buried. The waste will never leach out, even over 1,000 years. The VITT plant was designed to operate for a total of six months to demonstrate the technology. It was actually operated for several years and modified by a dozen different scientists with all types of probes and sensors. One of these add-ons finally melted and caused a leak of molten glass from the melter. The leak set fire to an epoxy-painted floor and the Fernald Fire Department was called to put out the fire. This ended the life of the VITT plant, but it was still a great success.
This process is currently being used very successfully at the Savannah River Site at the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF) plant. The waste is turned into glass and poured into large stainless steel containers resembling tall milk cans. These can be safely buried in salt mines or other underground disposal facilities.
Every Dollar Counts
I was often kidded about my projects that saved the government millions of dollars. People said, “These savings are a drop in a bucket,” and I would always tell them, “If every one of us working for the government came up with just a $1 million savings, pretty soon we’d be talking about some real money.”