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Sodium fire at ETTP and Strontium-90 "spill"

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PostPosted: Thu May 20, 2004 11:45 pm    Post subject: Sodium fire at ETTP and Strontium-90 "spill" Reply with quote

The last couple of weekends have been much too exciting for Bechtel Jacobs, its subcontractors, and local emergency response personnel.

First came the Saturday, May 8th, sodium fire in a leased facility at ETTP (the former K-25 site). Several major roads were closed and 150 people within 1/2 mile of the site were advised to evacuate their homes that afternoon and spend the night elsewhere. That fire started when metallic sodium was exposed to moisture in the air. Sodium metal reacts violently with water. Furthermore, press reports say that the metal had been melted in order to recycle it. That must have been a nasty fire. Fortunately, there was no radioactive material involved, so no contamination spread.

Then on Friday, May 14th, radioactive strontium-90 leaked from a truck that was carrying an old radwaste tank from the ORNL area to the CERCLA waste disposal facility in Bear Creek Valley. A section of Highway 95 was closed all weekend while crews surveyed the road, ripped up the contaminated asphalt, and repaved. Other roads not open to the public also had to be remediated. Fortunately, it looks like there was no public exposure, and no contamination was found on vehicles that drove over the contaminated road before the problem was found.

Although there were no public health risks, both of these incidents were costly (all that survey work and repaving after the strontium spill cost over $1 million) and caused substantial disruptions to people's lives, and I believe they have damaged people's confidence that Oak Ridge is a safe place to live.

Both of these incidents resulted from DOE environmental cleanup activities -- actions that are supposed to make us safer. DOE is investigating both incidents. When they are done, the public will know more details about what went wrong. However, I think we already can see the big picture. As I told WBIR TV News on Monday (see the video clip and text summary of the story), I am concerned that these incidents may be symptoms that the Accelerated Cleanup program is trying to accomplish "cleanup" too fast. Sad

Faster is not necessarily better. As a community, we should have the courage to insist that the cleanup be done properly, rather than tacitly supporting the push for "faster and cheaper." Accelerating cleanup is attractive to Federal officials because it gives them a chance to declare victory sooner, but they should not be credited for winning a race if they get to the finish line by taking unsafe shortcuts.

I understand why City Council was motivated to send a letter to DOE encouraging the continuation of accelerated cleanup in spite of these incidents, but I think that a more cautious approach to cleanup might prove better for the city's long-term future.
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PostPosted: Thu Jun 10, 2004 10:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

This post is by Ellen Smith:

Today's news contains another distressing report of an "occurrence" in the cleanup program on the Oak Ridge Reservation. I'm getting my information from http://oakridger.com/stories/061004/bre_20040610001.shtml.

This incident sounds like it was a conventional sort of construction accident -- a forklift slid down an embankment and overturned into White Oak Creek, spilling diesel fuel into the creek. It looks like things are ending up OK -- the driver was sent to the K-25 medical facility, but he was not injured, and the spilled fuel was safely contained.

I'm relieved that no one was injured, but I still have a nagging concern that these incidents could be evidence that "haste makes waste." I hate to think that people are jeopardizing their own health and safety or cutting corners on environmental protection in order to meet deadlines on an effort that is supposed to benefit health, safety and the environment.
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PostPosted: Tue Aug 31, 2004 11:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

This evening, DOE held a public meeting to talk about the reports on investigations of these two accidents. The reports are available on the Internet (as PDF files) at strontium incident report and sodium fire report.

I think DOE officials did an impressive job at the meeting. Gerald Boyd, Larry Clark, and Steve McCracken did not pull punches in describing the accidents and the findings of the investigations. Not all public questions were answered effectively, but a lot of good statements were made and good questions were asked.

In spite of DOE protestations to the contrary, I couldn't avoid thinking that one major contributing factor in both of these incidents was a set of business approaches (by DOE) that were chosen for expediency. These were not minor slip-ups with major consequences, but actions that were planned and executed poorly. In both cases, DOE had deviated from its business-as-usual approach to the contracting process.

The sodium fire at ETTP was in leased space on a DOE site, processing a material that had come from another DOE site. Instead of contracting with a private company for the unusual and challenging job of processing sodium-filled reactor shielding components from ORNL (and then overseeing the project), DOE had transferred ownership of those components to a private company leasing space at ETTP -- and then left most of the technical and safety oversight in the hands of that company (and state regulators). That approach probably was considered creative. It probably saved money, reduced DOE's oversight burden, and helped DOE meet its reindustrialization goals at ETTP, but it was not a responsible thing to do.

The spillage of strontium-rich water on the highways was connected with the work of a subcontractor to Bechtel Jacobs Corporation, reportedly working under a fixed-price subcontract that was awarded to the lowest bidder. Something unexpected (water in the bottom of a tank) appeared, and the contractor made a good-faith effort to deal with the problem, but tthe results suggest that they didn't think things through very well. I believe that things would have been planned (and done) differently if it weren't for the pressure imposed project deadlines and fixed-price contracting.
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