Nuclear fuel plant in Hematite closes, but waste remains
By Tim Rowden and William Allen
Of the Post-Dispatch

A facility in Jefferson County that produced fuel rods for the nation's nuclear reactors for decades closed down last week. But its legacy of radioactive waste could trouble its neighbors for decades to come.

State and federal officials are concerned about possible health and environmental threats posed by the Westinghouse Electric Co.'s nuclear fuel processing plant in Hematite.

At the core of their worries is a mystery surrounding a radioactive contaminant known as technetium-99, whose origins at the site remain unknown.

The plant, located west of Festus, about 35 miles south of St. Louis, ceased operations Friday. Workers there made nuclear fuel-rod assemblies for commercial power plants and the military starting in the 1950s.

Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert said the company was consolidating its production at the company's plant in Columbia, S.C., in response to overcapacity in the industry. He said about 15 of the plant's 180 former workers had accepted offers to move to South Carolina.

As part of decommissioning the plant, Westinghouse will work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to identify and deal with radioactive materials and byproducts left behind from more than four decades of operations. Officials said the cleanup is expected to cost several million dollars and could take five to six years.

State and federal regulators say tests on the plant's monitoring wells in the early 1990s detected a low-level presence of technetium-99, a fission product occurring in uranium that has been irradiated. Subsequent tests on drinking water wells around the plant show no contamination.

What happened

To understand how technetium might have gotten to Hematite, it's important to understand a bit about the steps in the uranium fuel cycle.

Put simply, uranium is mined, milled, converted chemically, enriched and fabricated into fuel rods. The fabrication step is where Hematite fit in.

After fabrication, the rods are used in a nuclear reactor. The fission reaction in the reactor produces traces of technetium, plutonium and other highly radioactive materials.

When the uranium fuel is spent, the radioactive waste left over is disposed of. During part of the Cold War, the U.S. government often reprocessed - or recycled - the spent fuel and used it again.

The technetium apparently came to Hematite from Paducah, Ky., where the federal government ran a program to recover uranium and other materials from spent nuclear reactor fuel. The aim of the program was to re-use the recycled materials in reactors, weapons and tank armor.

This unanswered question remains: How did the technetium get to Hematite?

State officials didn't learn about the presence of technetium until decades after it was released at Hematite.

In 1996, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission notified the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that technetium had been found in test wells at Hematite. The NRC said a private contractor working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had found it five years earlier.

The delayed notification was shocking enough to state officials. But even more shocking was the fact that technetium isn't supposed to be present in Missouri soil or water, said Ron Kucera, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

"There was considerable folly in what happened down there," he said. "We tried to reconstruct the history of how this got into Missouri ground water.."

State investigators analyzed public and private drinking water wells in the area and found that technetium had not moved into those wells.

The NRC told the state that the technetium came from contaminated equipment or containers from the U.S. Department of Energy uranium reprocessing facility in Paducah. It also could have come from contaminated enriched uranium itself, the commission said.

That was significant because the Paducah facility was part of the nation's nuclear weapons complex. It also meant DOE bears some responsibility for cleanup of the Hematite site, at least in the eyes of state officials.

Then-DNR director David Shorr wrote to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary asking for help in finding when and in what amounts uranium had been sent to the Hematite plant.

"The existence of fission product contamination at the Hematite plant evidences an undeniable relationship between the Department of Energy's reprocessing efforts and the operations at the Hematite plant," Shorr wrote..

O'Leary's response a few months later showed that thousands of pounds of the enriched uranium had been shipped to Hematite in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Included in her response were several declassified documents that shed light on some of the inner workings of the DOE weapons production effort during the Cold War, an effort in which St. Louis played a key role.

Among other points, the records showed that some of the fuel rods made with enriched uranium at Hematite may have been used to power nuclear reactors aboard U.S. submarines.

Federal officials speculate that the technetium contaminated the soil at the plant when workers washed off cylinders that had contained uranium. The NRC allowed the Hematite workers to dispose of waste in a way that could affect the ground water, officials say.

Records showed that the technetium levels in test wells at Hematite violated federal drinking water standards.

The state wants the characteristics of the waste pits and the rest of the site determined in detail.

That would "tell us what all the radiation and hazardous waste risk is out there so we can determine what to clean up and how and when, as well as to establish adequate long-term monitoring," Kucera said.

"It gives you a glimpse into a page of history on the nuclear weapons complex," he said.

The cleanup

Westinghouse owns 228 acres of land in Hematite, about 7 acres of which were committed to the plant's operations.

Officials at Westinghouse say the Hematite property is safe, and they are committed to cleaning up the site.

Westinghouse acquired the plant last year after its parent company, British Nuclear Fuels Limited, purchased the nuclear fuel holdings of Swiss-based ABB, which had operated the facility since 1989.

The fuel-rod manufacturing process involves the handling of uranium, anhydrous ammonia, hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid and nitrogen.

Technetium contamination is not the only byproduct that can be found at the
plant. Waste materials and solvents used in the operations were dumped in 40 unlined pits throughout the plant site from 1956 to 1972, before federal regulations prohibited such practices.

Gilbert said Westinghouse will work with the NRC to identify the contents of the pits and determine whether the materials should be left alone, removed, or contained on site.

"We're comfortable that this site does not pose a threat now," Gilbert said.. "The site characterization study is to make sure that it never does."

During an interview last week, plant manager Richard Gerwels said he was confident that the plant site is safe. He sipped from a cup of coffee made with water from an on-site drinking well.

No fear

Jerry McKee has lived on a 90-acre beef cattle farm two-tenths of a mile from the plant site for all of her 72 years. ABB purchased the property where her house sits in 1991 to prevent new development. McKee now leases the property and says she has no plans to move. Her son and grandson live across the road.

"I've never really had any fear about it," she says.

McKee worked in the plant's health physics department from 1968 to 1972, when she was let go during a period of layoffs. She later went on to earn a degree in nursing.

"They were very meticulous about everything that took place," she says. "Very careful. Of course, it has changed hands several times."

Westinghouse officials say Mallinckrodt, which opened the plant in 1956, joined with the Olin Corp. to form United Nuclear in 1959. The plant became Gulf Nuclear in the early 1970s and was purchased by Combustion Engineering in 1974. ABB bought the plant in 1989 and operated it under the name ABB-Combustion Engineering. The facility was sold to Westinghouse last year.

Through all those years, and all those owners, McKee says she never had any real concerns about the plant.

She still drinks water from a 230-foot well on her property, but has the water tested periodically just to be sure. When the plant opened, she says, no one thought much about it.

"People didn't know that much about nuclear materials in the past," McKee said. "At that time, people just looked at it as that it would be a place of employment, and there were a lot of people who lived in Hematite that went to work there."

Reporter Tim Rowden:
E-mail: Phone: 636-931-1017

Reporter William Allen:
E-mail: Phone: 314-340-8133