Department of Energy Reaches Out on PGDP Site's Future

Paducah, KY – During a pair of US Department of Energy public information events this week in Paducah, Energy and environmental cleanup contractor officials talked to many area residents about the future of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site. DOE Site Leader Reinhard Knerr walks Reporter Chris Taylor through the mass of details.

In the mid-80's investigators found that an industrial degreaser leaked at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site, contaminating the surrounding area's soil and drinking water. Over the next 25 years, the Department of Energy has expanded its cleanup and containment efforts there.

One of the more recent projects is Trichloroethylene extraction from the area's groundwater. The project is just one of many cleanup targets among arious categories like remediating waste burial grounds, soil, and surface water. Those projects are slated to be completed by 2019. And then there's debris that hasn't even been created yet.

Department of Energy Site Leader Reinhard Knerr says the expected waste will come from the planned decontamination and decommissioning of the entire industrial complex after the United States Enrichment Corporation ends its operations there sometime in the next few years.

Knerr- Because there are facilities that are operational right now, we can't interrupt their operations. So we're waiting for that to come back and then, of course, there will be some additional cleanup activities that we have to complete at that point. That will continue through most likely 2040.

Since cleanup efforts at the site will be underway for at least the next three decades, Knerr says it's important to understand what the public wants to do with the site and the radioactive waste within its boundaries. He says there are basically three choices.

Knerr- One alternative is primarily potentially looking for on-site disposal, the second is to say it's all going to be off-site disposal, and the third is just continue on a project by project basis.

In other words, they can store it, ship it, or put it off. Knerr also points out the options aren't exactly cut and dry. He says even if constructing an on-site storage facility is the way chosen, some high-hazard material would still likely be shipped off to one of three out of state facilities. Some estimates presume there's up to 4 million cubic yards of contaminated waste debris at the site. To put this in perspective: if it was concrete, you could build the Hoover Dam and have plenty left over. To ship it: It would take two dozen Semi truckloads every day for 20 years. Knerr says the cost of transporting the waste would likely double that of storing it. He's seen rough estimates range from $1.5 - 3 billion.

Knerr- Really until we understand exactly what the contaminants are and how much of it is in what facilities is really what's going to drive what some of those costs are for transportation. The disposal facilities also have tipping fees. All that needs to be factored in. And, of course, when you're doing estimates for work that's going to project out 40 years, there's a lot of uncertainty in that.

Storing waste on-site would require a 60-foot high, 110-acre advanced storage system that would look like a towering grass-covered hill. Five sites on the property meet minimum federal requirements and are far enough away from floodplains and earthquake fault lines.

Knerr- There's geo-textile liners and clay liners and a variety of other materials that are intended to keep the waste in place. There's also leachate collection systems, so [if] rainwater gets in, you have some migration of contaminants, it's collected. That gets monitored. We would have groundwater monitoring systems in place.

Whatever path the Paducah site will take comes with compromises either way. The on-site option would produce more local jobs and keep more federal tax dollars in the region, but then radioactive materials will remain the city's neighbor for the foreseeable future. Shipping would come at a vast cost difference and public exposure risks increase because the materials would travel daily along area road and rails. Knerr says not creating a definitive plan would be less efficient and cost taxpayers more in the long run. He says arriving at a decision is over a year away and at the behest of the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Knerr says public input will play a key role in the decision.

Knerr- There's been a concern that we're kind of hiding behind this veil of secrecy and that's not the case. We are trying to be very communicative about the decision-making process. And I think there's a mixed bag. There's some people that are for it. There's some people that are against it, but I think the majority of the people right now are interested in hearing more.

And they'll be able to find out more at future public information exchanges. Knerr says another way the public can give their opinions and submit feedback to the decision process is through the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant's Citizen Advisory Board. They meet in Paducah every third Thursday of each month.