Ecosystem Politics, Business, & Tech Spotlight

Uranium and Conservation in Portsmouth (Part 2)

Story by Brady Edge, Staff Writer

Part II: The Portsmouth Site

This article explores the background to nuclear energy and how it affects the world today. It starts with the physics behind nuclear energy generators and their many difficult issues (Part I), then goes on to discuss the Portsmouth site in Southeast Ohio, which is currently being torn down in order to rise up from its sludgy past…like a hazardous pheonix (Part II).

It is long, but worth it. To have the material flow better and the article itself be more succinct, I’ve dropped divergent details into notes at the end of the article. These notes are not essential to the overall message of this piece, but you may find them interesting. Notes are denoted with big roman numerals (XI), and contain links to the corresponding endnote. Links on the notes will bring you back to the main story.

Enjoy the ride!

Brown Bag Lunches are discussions hosted by CE3 to create a space for sharing a meal, collaboration and  discussion on current and future projects within the university community.
Brown Bag Lunches are discussions hosted by CE3 to create a space for sharing a meal, collaboration and discussion on current and future projects within the university community.

 

Introduction to Portsmouth

About an hour’s drive west of Athens, Ohio, in Piketon County, there is a 3,714-acre site containing, among other things, tanks full of UF6, a gaseous form of uranium that, during the Cold War, was used to enrich the radioactive substance U235 to the concentration required for atomic bombs (XIII). More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, these depleted UF6 containers, and 415 facilities containing and surrounded by dangerous materials, remain in Piketon, undergoing Decommissioning and Decontamination (D&D) to prepare the site for an uncertain but potentially rewarding future for Piketon and surrounding counties.

History of Portsmouth

By the end of World War II, the U.S. had only one gaseous diffusion plant, the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This was where enrichment was conducted for the Manhattan Project, developing atomic bombs that would force the end of the war. In the 1950s, when the U.S. entered the Cold War with the U.S.S.R., it ramped up testing on nuclear weapons to maintain its leverage on the U.S.S.R. Two more gaseous diffusion plants were developed in the U.S. for this demand: One of them was constructed in Paducah, Kentucky. The other was the Portsmouth plant, constructed from 1952-1956. The DOE owned the site at this time. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, founded and still headquartered in Akron, Ohio, ran diffusion operations.

In 1992, the Energy Policy Act was passed, creating The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC). This corporation, government-owned, took lease of the site from DOE and restructured uranium enrichment operations to provide fuel for energy generation. From this point on, the Portsmouth site provided nuclear fuel to power plants across the country. The USEC later went private, under the USEC Privatization Act of 1998.

In May of 2001, the USEC ceased its operations at Portsmouth and went into Cold Standby. Cold Standby is a condition during which process facilities are not in operation, but can be set up within 18-24 months to start operations again. The plant was put in this state so that the USEC could consolidate most of its operations onto the Paducah site. A relatively small portion of the site was devoted to constructing for the American Centrifuge Project, a new program that would continue uranium diffusion using less energy than previous methods. The future of this project, however, is uncertain, and otherwise the Paducah site is being cleared out (XIV).

Environmental remediation and Decontamination & Decommission (D&D) of the site went underway in 2001, and by 2005 the plant had gone into full Cold Shutdown, a permanent state of retirement. More than 50 years after its construction, most of the Paducah site was shut down.

 

Overview of the Cleanup

Since Cold Shutdown began, the Portsmouth site has been subjected to a lot of tearing down and cleaning up. In 2005, the DOE enlisted the help of LATA/Parallax Portsmouth, LLC (LPP) to begin environmental remediation. Facilities started being torn down, and by 2010, more than 59,500 cubic meters of waste had been swept up and removed from the site.

The DOE is responsible for contracting out this undertaking, which includes environmental cleanup, D&D, and disposal of wastes. In 2010, the DOE awarded a contract to Fluor-B&W Portsmouth LLC to perform D&D and cleanup of the site. Fluor-B&W itself is a combination of two entities: Fluor is a project management team, and Backcock & Wilcox (B&W) is a company that produces and sells a whole slew of nuclear and other energy gadgets, from spent fuel containers to steam generators.

D&D for the Piketon site is a huge project. In 2010, it was projected that the process may take until 2024, depending on government funding. This cleanup includes tearing down facilities, remediation of soil and water, as well as waste management for all of the hazardous materials involved. A separate project, conducted by B&W, includes the conversion of the DUF6. The UF6 is converted into two products: uranium oxide to be stored or sold as fuel, and hydrofluoric acid (“Breaking Bad,” anyone?).

Much progress has already been made on the D&D: by September of 2012, 46 million gallons of groundwater had been treated, and 6 out of 415 facilities had been torn down. Decisions about where the waste will be stored for the long-term have not yet been made. Risks to public health during these processes are very low, because the Portsmouth site has been in Cold Shutdown since 2005.

The D&D Process

The enrichment of uranium and its supporting activities required a large amount of special chemicals to keep the system running. Some of these chemicals at the time were not understood to be dangerous, so their disposal wasn’t regarded with much care.

Take, for example, Trichloroethylene, TCE. This solvent had many industrial uses at the time, including as an anesthetic, until it was replaced by halothane in the 1960s. As a volatile chemical that has dramatic effects on the nervous system, it was been banned by the EPA in the 1970s. This ban, however, came a little late; the Portsmouth plant had been using the chemical as a degreasing solvent to clean off equipment since its opening in the 1950s. At the time, TCE wasn’t seen as toxic, so it was simply hosed off whenever any amount of it fell on the ground. This caused the TCE to seep into the soil. In addition, waste disposal was not set to the standards we have today. For example, landfills were not required to have linings at the bottom to prevent seepage of materials. The end result is that soil and groundwater at the Portsmouth site are contaminated with TCE.

In 1989, the DOE, as well as the Ohio and U.S. EPA signed agreements that would initiate the environmental cleanup program. This is when cleanup of TCE was initiated. However, the site is far from washed of this chemical. Five plumes of groundwater near the site are affected by TCE contamination. The process of removing this toxin must be incredibly thorough; consider the fact that it takes just one-hundredth of a pound of TCE to contaminate a full 264,000 gallons of water, making it impotable. Fortunately these contaminated plumes are not in contact with any nearby drinking wells.

The methods for decontamination involve pumping and treating the water, oxidant injection, and slurry wall technology. By September of 2012, less than half a year after the water treatment started in the preceding March, the DOE had treated almost 46 million gallons of water, from which they had removed 552 pounds of TCE.

Contaminated soil must be taken care of in a different manner. The soil contains not only TCE but radionuclides, heavy metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls, which biphenyls are found in cooling fluids. To decontaminate soil, facilities on the site must be demolished, to the ends of isolating hazardous materials and protecting the soil and water from further contamination. This process includes deactivating utilities from support structures on the site, as well as removing waste and contaminated process equipment like piping and compressors that were exposed to waste throughout Portsmouth’s years of operation.

As of 2012 six support facilities had been demolished. This totals to 160,221 square feet of facilities, including a cooling tower and some buildings on the periphery of the site. But the process has not yet reached the most contaminated buildings, the biggest of which house gaseous diffusion process equipment. How big, you ask? Each of these buildings covers about 30 acres and has sides the length of half a mile (about the length of Court Street). They each contain 30 contaminated acres under-roof, and together they span the size of 158 football fields. It has not yet been decided by the DOE, Ohio EPA, and local community stakeholders whether or not to tear down these buildings at all (too many worms in that can, perhaps).

What happens to all of the waste that is being collected through the water and soil remediation? Throughout these operations, building debris, contaminated soil, and hazardous materials will need to be taken care of and put into a safe and isolated location. These hazardous materials include solid and liquid radioactive materials; hazardous materials that include toxic, corrosive, reactive, or ignitable materials; and sanitary waste.

But, so, where, then, can you put all this waste? The committee has not yet made a decision on long-term storage for waste. The real issue is, how much of the waste will be store on-site, and how much off-site? It is already known that the most contaminated materials will be shipped off site, to Nevada and Utah, to specialized sites for this type of waste storage.

The other option is to use an On-Site Disposal Cell (OSDC) to contain the less contaminated waste. This cell would take up the space of 100 acres on the site, 30 of which would be dedicated to monitoring and supporting the cell to keep all wastes safely within the container.

The requirements for safety on an OSDC are everything that the Portsmouth site’s regulations in the 1950s weren’t: At the most basic, there is a liner on the bottom of the cell to prevent any materials from soaking through the bottom, and a multi-layered cap that prevents materials from escaping. There will also be a monitoring system that looks at stuff called leachate, liquid drainage that comes from within the OSDC. This leachate accumulates when rain runs through the OSDC. A leachate collection system is used to clean the leachate and keep debris within a confined space. These OSDCs have been put into use at nine other DOE sites, and have never caused any incidents of exposure or contamination.

There’s also the option of recycling these wastes. As of October 2013, a bench-scale (small-scale, like in a laboratory or a work table) operation was set up to test whether or not materials on the site could be decontaminated and re-used for their Nickel content. This is being tested through something called the Mond Process, which is used in regular Nickel mining operations. As of 2012, 39,754 cubic yards had been recycled, out of potentially 110,000 cubic yards.

Let’s look at some enormous numbers for a second. To clean up the Portsmouth site, there will be a total of 2.2 million cubic yards of waste to dispose of. This volume of waste could fill up the Convo Center at Ohio University 16 times (though why would anyone do that?). In order to ship all of this waste from Portsmouth to Nevada and Utah, it would require 43 million miles of truck travel and 98 million miles of rail travel to accomplish this task. As of 2012, 62,625 cubic yards of this waste had been shipped off-site. The idea of recycling, and having an on-site disposal option would help to lessen this traveling load.

 

The Future of the Portsmouth Site

Upon its construction in the 1950’s, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant took a central role in the economy of Piketon and its surrounding counties. 22- to 27,000 local people were employed by the site, which offered premium jobs requiring more education than those offered by the steel mill and shoe plant in the area. When the plant ended its enrichment operations in 2001, and later went into shutdown in 2005, these jobs were lost. Now the area of Piketon and surrounding counties (Scioto, Ross, and Jackson) face serious unemployment; in 2010, it claimed the highest rate of unemployment in the state, at 15.1%.

It is clear how this site could have an enormous impact on the local economy. The D&D of the plant itself can provide about 2,000 jobs to people in the area. Its destiny after cleanup is still uncertain, but the DOE has worked with people from these affected counties to make the decision as beneficial to the local community as possible. The DOE lent a grant to Ohio University to engage the local community and gather ideas for the future of the Portsmouth site. This program, called the PORTS Future Vision project, was conducted by Ohio University’s Vionovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs from the Summer of 2010 to the Fall of 2011. The groups involved included stakeholders in the area, like nonprofits and environmental groups.

The project was completed in three phases: First, identifying the stakeholders of the site by surveying by telephone, interviewing key informants, and creating focus group meetings, in order to find out what priorities the community held regarding the future of the site. Next, drafting scenarios for future use of Portsmouth, by conducting eight visioning meetings and establishing an advisory group. Finally, allowing the public to vote on these plans for the site.

The PORTS project is not only valuable to the DOE, which will ultimately make the decision on what to do with the Portsmouth site, but also for local politicians and residents who want to become more informed about the site’s future.

Understandably, the creation of jobs became a great priority for those involved in the visioning process. One idea is to convert Portsmouth into an industrial park, which would provide manufacturing jobs to the community. A “Green Energy” park would potentially develop resins for wind turbines, or work on projects involving solar panels, since Piketon is one of the only places in Ohio where solar power might be a viable option. The recovery of metals from the Portsmouth site also brings possibilities for economic gain. A great emphasis has been put on combining these technological jobs with the opportunity to educate local students.

The main idea, it seems, is that people value the importance of variety. This makes sense; the Portsmouth site was an all-in-one-basket situation for decades, and the result was devastating on the economy. This lesson goes back to the most general of dilemmas mentioned earlier: how do we create sustainable energy for the future? The answer is that there is no single solution to the problem. Effort must come from many places, from education, to technology, to our daily habits of energy use. It seems that the committees involved in the PORTS project came to the same conclusion. They hope to convert this outdated single-solution site into one of many, one that may create jobs, promote the future of green energy, and at the same time educate the students of the next generation.

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  1.       XIII.        (Return). UF6 is an important ingredient in the enrichment of Uranium. It’s the ingredient, really. Uranium ore, U3O8, is converted to UF6 gas via a multiple step process. This gas can then be put through a diffusion process which separates out Uranium-235, the fuel used in nuclear reactors, from its other more-or-less useless isotope, U238.
    1. The fission of Uranium requires the isotope Uranium-235. In nature, the natural abundance of U235 is .72%; nearly all else is in the form of Uranium-238, a form whose fission requires an extra input of energy, and is not as practical for use in a nuclear reactor. These two forms of Uranium are called isotopes. Isotopes have the same chemical properties–same number of protons and electrons–but differ in their number of neutrons.
    2. Since both of these materials have the same chemical properties, and only differ from each other in their atomic weights, they must be separated by physical means. Diffusion works to separate Uranium-235 from Uranium-238 by running the gaseous isotopes through evacuated holes. This is called effusion. The Law of Effusion states that a gas of larger mass will effuse through a hole slower than one of smaller mass. So, the two isotopes are filtered out as U235 effuses faster than U238. The two isotopes are separated out this way multiple times until an acceptable concentration of U235, 2-4%, is present.
  2.      XIV.        (Return). This relatively small, but still large portion of the site owned by the USEC called the American Centrifuge Project as of April 2012 included 3 dozen 43-foot-tall centrifuges. The centrifuges represent a new form of gaseous diffusion technology, which requires just 5% of the power that the former diffusion plant did. The USEC’s goal is to install 11,000 of these centrifuges, which would be paid for through government loans. But the fate of this project is still in radioactive purgatory.
    1. As of 2012, the USEC was on its own as far as paying the bills went. It had been running on stopgap funding–which is when the current budget doesn’t hold up to the demands of a project, and the company has to pool resources from wherever it can just to keep the project moving forward–and was said to be running out of opportunities. Even the vice president of USEC Paul Jacobson remarked in April of 2013, “We’ve pulled rabbits out of the hat, but the hat’s only so deep and there are only so many rabbits,” saying that it wouldn’t be able to continue operations past the end of that May. Some specifics on this budget cut:
      1. In 2012, the Obama administration proposed a $256 Million research grant over two years to give 120 centrifuges to the USEC. This was a beginning investment, offered so that the American Centrifuge Project could prove its radioactive worth before receiving an up-to-$2 Billion offer.

a)     Then some major setbacks occurred, including a six-centrifuge crash that occurred when a backup generator failed to cover for a broken circuit-breaker. The project continued spending $15 Million/year to stay running, with its stocks dropping dramatically. This did not add promise to the future of the USEC.

b)    And the decisions on energy spending were at this time a very sensitive issue due to failed investments in the past. For example, a company called Solyndra, as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, was given a $535 Million loan for manufacturing in the solar industry. This company went defunct in 2011, and only a small portion of this investment could be regained. This was seen by congressmen as a cautionary tale to be considered before making any other investments.

  1. Even with 46 members of congress in favor of the project, the offer put forth by the Obama Administration was rejected by a Republican House, and so the USEC wouldn’t receive its money until at least October, and would probably only last until the end of May 2012.
  2. But in December 2013, the USEC website boasted some new major R&D breakthroughs, running ever more centrifuges in series and proving their worth to the government as a prime investment. Since the Paducah, KY and Oak Ridge, Tennessee plants were shut down in 2013, the main draw for investing in this project is that, otherwise, the U.S. will have no domestic source for uranium fuel, which now powers almost 20% of America’s electricity. The USEC is now in a cooperative agreement with the DOE to incrementally pay for the project.
  3. C.    In sum, it is very difficult to see the future of energy sources when the investment environment changes so rapidly.

 

 

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Brady Edge was raised in Hudson, OH. He likes guitars, empty pages, the Appalachian Trail, whole-hearted laughs, and the color of things that are the color green. If he could have lunch with 3 people, dead or alive, they would be Richard Feynman and David Foster Wallace, and you, to fill the imminent silence that accompanies the unfortunately deceased…

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