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U.S. Struggles With Reactor Fuel Dumps Leaking Radiation

December 9, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hundreds of containers of nuclear reactor fuel placed in concrete water ponds temporarily by the government have been left there for decades and are leaking radiation, the Energy Department says.

Dealing with the tons of fuel at weapons complexes in Washington state, Idaho, South Carolina and Tennessee has become a top priority at the department. Nevertheless, it may be years before all of the canisters are safely stored.

″These were fuels that were intended to be reprocessed. In some cases ponds that were supposed to contain the fuel for a few months have had them for years,″ said Tara O’Toole, the department’s assistant secretary for environment, safety and health.

She said in an interview Wednesday that in some cases workers already are being exposed to radiation - although within allowed dose limits - because of leaking canisters and exposure levels ″will go up as the fuel (and containers) continue to corrode.″

Officials familiar with the government’s nuclear weapons cleanup program have long known of the problems posed by the used reactor fuel canisters, some of which are buried, but most of which are in concrete water pools. Some canisters and pools are more than 40 years old.

But a task force report released this week focused for the first time on the scope of the used reactor fuel storage problem throughout the department’s nuclear weapons complex.

″Concern for the safety and health of the workers at these facilities increases with time, as does the potential for release to the environment,″ the report concludes.

The study said the areas needing ″priority attention″ were reactor fuel storage pools at the Hanford weapons site near Richland, Wash., the Savannah River weapons complex near Aiken, S.C., and the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, west of Idaho Falls.

It also singled out reactor fuel buried in trenches at the Hanford facility and fuel buried on the Oak Ridge weapons complex in Tennessee. The aging canisters at Oak Ridge have not been located, although they are known to be within a 10-acre area on the site.

Some canisters - usually uranium wrapped in an aluminum or other metal cladding - were designed for short-term storage but have been corroding, rusting and leaking for years, contaminating the water in the ponds.

Thomas Grumbly, assistant secretary for environmental restoration at the weapons facilities, expressed frustration over the problem. Two options under consideration are to transfer the canisters and repack them before storage in new water, or to put them into dry caskets. Both approaches are expected to take years.

The storage pools are made of concrete and only a few are lined with stainless steel. The study says the unlined pools are more likely to leak and do not have effective leak detection. One pool at Hanford has leaked and been repaired. Other leaks are suspected, officials said.

″This is the very thing I’ve been complaining about for three years,″ said Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus.

Lynne Stembridge, leader of a citizens’ watchdog group near the Hanford complex in Washington state, said, ″They still don’t foresee getting (the fuel) out until after the turn of the century. That’s unacceptable.″

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