Duratek says nuclear cleanup project a success

August 02, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

GTS Duratek Inc., a small Columbia-based technology company, has taken a big first step in helping the Department of Energy clean up its huge stockpiles of nuclear waste at weapons production sites around the country.

As part of a $3.5 million demonstration program funded by DOE, Duratek announced yesterday that it had begun turning low-level nuclear waste at the government's nuclear weapons plant at Fernald, Ohio, into glass nuggets for safe storage.

This is the first time anyone has successfully done this at a waste site, said Rob Warner, an Energy Department official at Fernald, a suburb of Cincinnati. "The technology looks very, very promising," he said.

Mr. Warner said that once the waste, now kept in storage ponds, is converted into glass "it is so stable that you could throw it on the ground and it [the nuclear waste] would not leach out for thousands and thousands of years."

"This is a major step for Duratek," said Robert E. Prince, president and chief executive of Duratek. "With this accomplishment, GTS Duratek is positioned to rapidly move vitrification into a wide range of environmental remediation markets."

Mr. Prince said the Fernald demonstration is scheduled to run for two weeks.

In the Duratek process, the contaminated soil and sludge are mixed together, yielding a substance that resembles chocolate fudge mix. The mix is poured into an oven -- a machine called a Duramelter -- and baked at a very high temperature, converting the sludge into nuggets of glass that resemble flattened, shiny black marbles about three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

"The radioactive waste is trapped in the glass, like the green color in a beer bottle," Mr. Prince said. "You can break the bottle, but the green stays in the glass. It's the same with our process; the radioactive waste is trapped inside the glass," he said.

Although the glass is radioactive, the radioactivity can't leach into the soil or ground water, he said. Low-level radioactive particles are not usually dangerous unless ingested or breathed in.

The company is already beginning to cash in on the technology it developed in conjunction with Catholic University of America and the Department of Energy. In December, it was awarded a $12.9 million, three-year contract to clean up waste at the federal government's Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex at Aiken, S.C.

The Duramelter at Fernald is producing about a half-ton of glass pellets a day, the company said. At Savannah River, where the cleanup is scheduled to begin next summer, anywhere from 5 to 15 tons of pellets will be produced daily.

As an indication that there could be a lot more work ahead, Mr. Prince noted that that contract covers only 2 percent of the low-level nuclear waste at Savannah River; all the waste at the site represents only 20 percent of the waste in the country.

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