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Decontamination and Decommissioning of the former Gaseous Diffusion Plant at the DOE Portsmouth Site in Piketon

What is going on at the A-Plant?

The former gaseous diffusion plant, which many refer to as the “A-Plant,” was built between 1952 and 1956 during the height of the Cold War to enrich uranium for national defense purposes (as part of the nuclear weapons complex) and later for producing low enriched uranium for use in commercial nuclear power reactors to produce electricity. This facility has exceeded its useful life, is too costly to maintain in its present state and needs to be decommissioned and cleaned up..

Why is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) tearing down the plant and cleaning up the site?

In 1989, agreements were signed by the DOE, Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA that initiated the environmental cleanup program. After the uranium enrichment plant operated for nearly 50 years, production was shut down in 2001. DOE, as the owner of the facility, kept the plant in “Cold Standby” until 2005, maintaining an operational mode should it be required to be restarted.  In 2005, the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, who is responsible for cleanup of the former defense nuclear production sites, made the decision to place the plant in “Cold Shutdown” to permanently shut it down as it was no longer needed. At that time, workers began to deactivate the equipment and prepare for the eventual Decontamination & Decommissioning (D&D) or tear-down of the former uranium enrichment facilities.   The gaseous diffusion technology that was used in these old uranium enrichment buildings required a huge amount of electrical power, making it much less economical and efficient than the newer centrifuge technology proposed at the American Centrifuge Project and at other newer enrichment facilities. DOE awarded a contract in August 2010 to Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth LLC to perform the D&D and site cleanup of the gaseous diffusion plant.

What exactly is being cleaned up and/or torn down at the site?

Cleanup at the site only involves the former gaseous diffusion plant and its supporting operations. Decisions are being made to remove the buildings and where possible, recycle the waste. Any contaminated soils and groundwater are being cleaned or removed, such as soil contaminated with a common degreasing solvent called trichloroethylene, or TCE. Two other major operations on the DOE plant Site include the American Centrifuge Project, operated by Centrus Energy Corp., and DOE’s depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) conversion project operated by the BWXT Conversion Services. These two operations are not part of the cleanup program.

When will this be done?

The schedule is dependent on the federal budget and annual funds appropriated by Congress.

How many people are employed during the D&D project?

The Site now employs about 2,600 employees with most (about 2,000) currently working on the D&D project.  The size of the project workforce depends on final budget appropriations from Congress.

If there is a problem on site, how far from the plant do I need to be in order to be safe?

The Department of Energy (DOE) considers the 2-mile radius around the site as the Emergency Planning Zone.  Warning sirens would notify residents in this area of possible conditions at the site which may affect public health and safety. Since the shutdown of the gaseous diffusion plant (GDP)  operations in 2001, the risk associated with these facilities has diminished significantly.

Waste Disposition

What are you going to do with all the materials when you tear down the buildings?

This project involves more than 400 buildings, facilities and systems, including the three massive process buildings that have almost 100 acres under roof.  In the summer of 2015 the Ohio EPA and DOE agreed upon a plan to ship materials with highest contamination off-site and dispose of lower contaminated materials in a specially engineered and controlled on-site disposal facility. All clean material, free of hazardous radioactive or chemical contamination, can be offered for recycling at DOE’s discretion.

How much waste is there?

Current estimates show about 1.5 million cubic yards of mostly concrete, building materials, equipment, and soil. About 110,000 cubic yards are estimated to be recyclable metals.

What materials can be recycled?

All clean material, free of hazardous radioactive or chemical contamination, can be offered for recycling at DOE’s discretion. DOE weighs the costs and benefit of recycling before making a decision whether to offer the material for recycling.

How will you ship materials off site?

All aspects of packaging and shipping must meet strict requirements set by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).  Non-hazardous debris is typically shipped in dumpsters or roll-off containers.  Hazardous material, including radioactive waste and mixed waste (a combination of chemical and radiological hazards) are packaged and shipped in DOT- approved drums, steel boxes, soft-sided containers, intermodal containers or gondola rail cars. These packages are sealed and labeled according to DOE requirements and shipped by rail and/ or truck, depending on the final destination.

What is the On-Site Waste Disposal Facility?

An On-Site Waste Disposal Facility (OSWDF) is a specially engineered disposal site with a multi-layer cap and liner system, and a leachate collection system designed to consolidate demolition debris and rubble into one smaller confined space that protects public health and the environment.

What is leachate?

Leachate is the liquid drainage that would be collected from inside the OSWDF. The leachate is treated and cleaned through a water treatment facility. Wastewater from an OSWDF, including leachate and storm water, must be managed and treated appropriately to make sure that surface water and underground drinking water stays safe. Leachate typically comes from the moisture in material placed in the OSWDF, water added to help compact the soil during construction and rain or snow that falls during the time that the cell is still open to receive materials.

How do you know what’s safe to put in the OSWDF?

Safety requirements are set by law and DOE Orders that waste must meet before it can be accepted into a site disposal facility. These requirements (called Waste Acceptance Criteria or WAC) are to ensure the long term protection of people and the environment. There are many requirements including limits on the amount of radioactivity or chemical contamination in the waste, requirements based on size of the waste and how it must be handled and placed, requirements for quality control to inspect incoming waste, and requirements for security of classified waste. All plans for what can be placed in an OSWDF and how it will be inspected, placed, and tracked must be approved by Ohio EPA.

What would go into the OSWDF?

The types of materials that would go in the On-Site Waste Disposal Facility would include building materials (mostly concrete and steel), sitewide soil, soil under buildings, and some of the equipment used in uranium enrichment. Consideration may also be given to putting the contents of several existing and historical site landfills into the cell. No waste from outside sources would be accepted.

So will all the old process equipment go into the OSWDF?

Equipment that doesn’t meet on-site waste acceptance criteria (WAC) must be disposed at a special off-site facility. Process equipment, which is the machinery used in uranium enrichment, could safely be placed into an on-site disposal cell if it meets the WAC.   Right now, we believe that some of the X-326 equipment, including the converters, would likely be disposed off site.

What about radiation? Will the OSWDF expose me to radiation?

No. The OSWDF will meet very high standards for protection of human health and the environment. Strict criteria approved by Ohio EPA for the material placed in the cell, construction, and location of the cell will ensure that no member of the public is exposed to radiation. A long-term monitoring system and maintenance program will ensure the facility continues to operate safely as designed.

How else is the on-site disposal facility designed to be protective?

The location is based on geology and preferably in an area with a deep layer of bedrock beneath the disposal site to protect the groundwater. The design itself follows strict safety requirements under the law. The radioactive materials that may be placed in the cell must meet strict criteria. The entire site of the OSWDF will be surrounded by monitoring wells to continually sample the groundwater to make sure that it remains clean and safe. Monitoring will also be done to ensure the disposal facility cap protects people and the environment from anything in the cell.

Will the disposal site at the plant accept waste from other places?

The OSWDF will only accept materials from the cleanup at the Portsmouth site.

Even with an OSWDF, wouldn’t there still be waste which has to be shipped off site?

Yes. The most contaminated materials will still be shipped off site to specialized disposal facilities. There are existing facilities in Utah and Nevada that are specifically designed to accept and contain that kind of waste.

How will an on-site disposal cell be monitored after DOE and its contractors are gone?

Monitoring wells will be placed all around the OSWDF to make sure the cell is working as designed. The cell cover will also be monitored to make sure it remains intact and safe. This monitoring and any required maintenance must be done by DOE forever. Continued oversight by Ohio EPA would also be required in perpetuity.

Where will the OSWDF be located?

Studies have identified four possible locations after considering an initial 16 potential sites. One location in the northeastern portion of the DOE property appears to have the most suitable geology and hydrologic conditions. This has been chosen as the preferred location of the OSWDF.

How large will the disposal facility be?

We expect that it could be built over about 100 acres, about 1,500 ft by 2,400 ft in size.  The 100 acres would include the maintenance road, storm water channel, and monitoring and leachate management systems.  The actual disposal cell would likely be about 70 acres.  This leaves more than 3,500 acres of the site available for other uses, including the 1,000 acre main production area.

Have On-Site Disposal Facilities been constructed at other DOE site locations?

On-site disposal exists at nine other DOE sites, three of which are now closed.  On-site closed disposal facilities now under long-term monitoring are located in Fernald, OH; Weldon Springs, MO; and Monticello, UT.  Active open waste disposal facilities are located in Oak Ridge, TN; Hanford, WA; Idaho Falls, ID; Savannah River, SC; Nevada Nuclear Security Site, NV; and Los Alamos, NM.  No incidents of exposure to people or the environment have ever been experienced at any of these on-site disposal facilities.  DOE did not construct an on-site disposal facility at its site in Rocky Flats, CO, but instead chose to leave building foundations in place underground.  Future use of the Rocky Flats site is therefore restricted.

Environmental Cleanup

How contaminated is the site?

When the uranium enrichment process was started in the early 1950s at the site, some of the materials used at the time were not considered harmful.  Over the years, further information became available and more stringent requirements were established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and DOE. The use of trichloroethylene (also called trichloroethene or TCE) a widely used (including at this site) industrial degreasing solvent was banned by U.S. EPA in the late 1970s. The site’s cleanup program has been ongoing since 1989 and many cleanup actions have been completed.  Five groundwater plumes (areas with TCE in the groundwater beneath the surface) have been identified at the site and all are being treated. As the plant prepares for demolition of the process buildings, special requirements will be in place to address the radioactive contamination inside equipment and buildings, and in the soil under and around the buildings. Soil samples continue to be collected to determine how much soil must be cleaned up.

How did TCE (trichloroethylene) get into the groundwater and in so many areas?

TCE was a widely used industrial cleaning solvent until the late 1970s when it was banned. Until then, people didn’t realize it was hazardous so there were no special disposal requirements.  If some spilled on the floor, it could simply be hosed off.  That water would seep through cracks in the floor into the ground.  It only takes a small amount of TCE to contaminate a lot of water.  Some of the TCE has also gotten into the groundwater from waste buried in the existing site landfills.  These landfills were built and operated under less strict requirements than a modern OSDC.   None of the landfills with plumes below has a lining system to seal its bottom.  Plus, these landfills were open to the environment for many years before they were capped and closed.  To address the situation, these landfills have since gone through an extensive process to close and cap them in accordance with present day rules for protecting human health and the environment.

Can the contaminated groundwater get into my drinking water?

The groundwater contamination is contained to the DOE property and no area drinking water wells are affected.  DOE (under supervision of Ohio EPA) has installed a series of extraction wells and four pump and treatment facilities to remove trichloroethylene (TCE) from the groundwater and contain the spread of contamination. More than 1,000 groundwater monitoring wells have been installed to investigate and monitor the groundwater. The contamination (primarily the cleaning solvent TCE) is contained in a shallow aquifer beneath the site that is not used for drinking water.

Future Use

What does “future use” mean?

“Future use” refers to new missions or activities that could take place at the Portsmouth Site after decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) is complete.   In 2010, DOE provided a grant to the Ohio University Voinovich School of Public Affairs to talk with residents in four surrounding counties to get  their visions for the future of the site.   The process with Ohio University is called the “PORTSfuture Project”  www.portsfuture.com.  After many meetings, consideration of numerous options, and a lot of input, this study found that 95% of the community members who participated in the study wanted a new commercial- or industrial-related future for the site after cleanup.

What will happen to the site after it’s cleaned up?

Local elected officials, the Site Specific Advisory Board and the community reuse organization (Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, SODI) have asked DOE to make this site ready for industrial reuse after cleanup.  DOE is planning to leave a clean, business-ready property with roads and utilities to attract new users.

Decision Process

Where can I go to learn more?

Please join DOE’s mailing list for more information on specific topics of interest and attend our quarterly public meetings.  You can also call our hotline at 888-603-7722 with questions or to be added to the mailing list.  You can also email us anytime at questions@fbportsmouth.com . You can also learn more through the following online resources:   U.S. Department of Energy – www.energy.gov; Portsmouth / Paducah Project Office – www.pppo.energy.gov; Site Specific Advisory Board – www.ports-ssab.energy.gov.  You can also obtain copies of documents relating to the cleanup at http://www.fbportsmouth.com/community/stakeholder-docs.htm or in the DOE Environmental Information Center, 1862 Shyville Road, Room 207, (740) 289-8898 or e-mail: eic@wems-llc.com.

How do I provide my input?

Public input helps DOE incorporate community values into every proposed plan. There are numerous ways to share your input or concerns with DOE before the formal public comment period. Please come talk with the scientists, engineers and other site experts at DOE’s public meetings. Your questions and concerns will be addressed and considered in DOE’s planning and any final decision.

How do I sign up for a tour of the former Gaseous Diffusion Plant?

DOE currently offers tours to the public on the first Saturday of every month.  Tours are free of charge but do require advanced reservations due to limited space on the tour bus.  To sign up, call (740) 897-2336 or our hotline at (888) 603-7722.

Does Fluor make more money for an off-site/on-site disposal alternative versus shipping all waste?

Fluor-BWXT does not profit by DOE choosing either disposal alternative. Fluor-BWXT was awarded a $2.1 billion contract in August 2010 for decontamination and decommissioning of the former gaseous diffusion plant at the DOE Portsmouth Site in Piketon. Fluor-BWXT bills the Department of Energy (DOE) for the work it performs and is reimbursed for actual cost of the work. DOE also annually awards Fluor-BWXT a fee that includes a base amount fixed at the start of the contract and an award amount that Fluor-BWXT earns through performance over a given year. The DOE publishes the base fee for the Portsmouth D&D on its website http://www.em.doe.gov/Pages/EMContractorPayments.aspx. Work done for either the off-site alternative or combined on-site/off-site alternative for material disposal will be scheduled and billed according to the cost of the work required.

What is Ohio EPA's role in this cleanup?

DOE is responsible for cleanup of the Portsmouth Site and must work with Ohio EPA to ensure that cleanup decisions meet State and Federal requirements for feasibility, fiscal responsibility, and most importantly, protection of human health and the environment.  DOE has strict legal agreements with Ohio EPA and Ohio EPA is responsible for overseeing the work that DOE does.