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Sierra Club Warns of Dangers of Idled Facilities in Ohio and Kentucky
The Nuclear Free Committee of the Ohio Sierra Club has written to legislators in Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois and to others, sharing our concerns about the stoppage of work at BWXT Conversion Services facilities at the Portsmouth, OH and Paducah, KY Nuclear Sites. The Portsmouth Site is just outside the town of Piketon in Southern Ohio.
Uranium Enrichment. For over 40 years these two sites enriched uranium – first for nuclear bombs and later for nuclear power. The uranium used in enrichment was in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). The enrichment process separated the less-than-1% of fissionable (therefore, usable) uranium-235 from the bulk of the uranium-238. What was left over is called “depleted” uranium, but it was still in hexafluoride form, an extremely reactive and corrosive substance termed depleted uranium hexafluoride or DUF6.
The Conversion Process.The BWXT conversion process at the Portsmouth and Paducah facilities removes the fluorine from the uranium, with the end products being uranium oxide—which is still radioactive but not chemically reactive—and hydrogen fluoride gas (HF). HF is of some commercial value and could theoretically defray some of the cost of the conversion process.
The Sierra Club and antinuclear activists have long been supporters of the construction and operation of these facilities. Besides being radioactive, uranium in its hexafluoride form is highly toxic and chemically corrosive. Chemical reactivity is causing the cylinders that hold it to rust and leak. Many of the corroded cylinders are over 60 years old. There are over 24,000 of these 14-ton cylinders at Portsmouth alone. There are approximately 40,000 of these cylinders at Paducah.
We opposed the shipment of thousands of additional cylinders from Oak Ridge to Portsmouth as being premature, but yet they are now in Ohio.
Conversion is critically important and needs to be resumed without delay because of the aging and rusting cylinders. Pressure within the cylinders continues to test the integrity of steel walls. The DUF6 in the cylinders is a solid at room temperature. When exposed to air, it sublimes, that is, it goes directly from a solid to a gas. Any leaking DUF6 will eventually move into the air. It will take up to 20 years working round the clock to convert the DUF6 currently at Portsmouth when the plant is operational.
Facilities Closed. The Portsmouth conversion facility opened in 2011, but has not been operating since March of 2015, when an accident injured two workers and initiated an investigation by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The sister conversion facility at Paducah mysteriously powered down immediately after that accident and closed 3 months later. BWXT was fined $200,000 for multiple safety violations.
Leaking Cylinders. According to the October 1, 2013 Ohio EPA Director’s Findings and Orders to BWCS and Fluor-BW Portsmouth, LLC for remediation of damaged and leaking cylinders at Portsmouth there are 1,000 cylinders that are damaged and leaking. We have no assurance that inspections have proceeded as ordered by Ohio EPA in the above document.
Technological problems. The facilities may have serious technological problems. That would include the emission of unacceptable amounts of pollution, whether the facilities themselves have become damaged or not. Levels of HF 100 times over the limit have been reported. The presence of highly radioactive transuranic elements and technetium-99 in the DUF6 cylinders complicates the conversion process and the measures needed to protect workers and isolate all byproducts of the operation. The presence of these elements could end or greatly lower any commercial demand for the HF.
High Radioactivity. The contamination occurred as the Dept. of Energy brought in what they termed “recycled uranium” and ran it through the gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge (TN), Portsmouth and Paducah for many years. The department also uses the terms “processed recycled uranium”, “processed recycled feed materials”, “special nuclear material” and “reactor returns” to describe this material which is officially termed reprocessed high-level radioactive waste, which is theirradiated (used) fuel rods of nuclear reactors. Reprocessed high-level radioactive waste from various sources came into the 3 sites from as early as 1953 to as late as 1976, contaminating the entirety of the gaseous diffusion process buildings at Oak Ridge, Paducah and Portsmouth with plutonium and other transuranics and their decay elements. Paducah is the most contaminated, receiving approximately 100,000 tons of reprocessed high-level radioactive waste containing an estimated 328 grams of plutonium, 18.4 kilograms of neptunium and 661 kilograms of technetium-99.
Cost to the Public. The Dept. of Energy built the conversion facilities at a cost of over $500 million each. DOE paid BWXT $409.5 million to operate the Portsmouth facility for 5 years from Jan. 2011 through 2015. No one bid on a new contract, so DOE extended BWXT’s contract 9 months through September 2016, paying BWXT $68 million – more per month than they received when the facility was operating. There is no information on what will happen after Sept. 2016. BWXT continues to monitor the cylinder yards.
There are other questions about the conversion operations at Portsmouth and Paducah, including proper disposition of the final products of the operation, uranium dioxide and hydrogen fluoride, both of which are contaminated with transuranics and technetium.
The immediate focus should be to get the conversion process operating again. The situation is ripe for a serious radiological accident that could contaminate an extensive area. This should be a top priority for the Department of Energy.