GTS Duratek takes long stride in recycling, turns profits ASBESTOS TO GLASS

November 23, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- The black glass bud vase that Mark Clements proudly showed visitors to Catholic University of America's Vitreous Laboratory yesterday was no ordinary White

House souvenir.

It was made from potentially deadly asbestos recently removed from the first family's home.

Mr. Clements is director of environmental services for GTS Duratek, a Columbia-based technology company involved in environmental cleanup.

During a demonstration of the technology it developed in cooperation with the university, technicians wearing respirators, air monitoring equipment and clothed from head to toe in protective overalls fed trash bags of cancer-causing asbestos from the White House into a 12-foot-high machine called a DuraMelter.

The bags, which might also contain wire mesh, tools, a lunch pail and a variety of other trash, were condemned to an inferno of bubbling orange molten glass.

Almost instantly the nearly 2,000-degree heat from the furnace broke down the chemical composition of the asbestos and transformed it into a glass that can be used safely in the production of a variety of products, including kitchen counter tops, ceramic tiles, bricks and road building materials.

"This is just the beginning," Robert E. Prince, Duratek's president and chief executive, said of the process to make asbestos into glass, a spinoff of the technology it developed for converting low-level nuclear waste into glass pellets for safe storage. "We want to go after the medical waste business, too," he said. "Long term we want to be a recycling company."

The past year has been good to Duratek. It turned the corner on deficit operations to post three consecutive profitable quarters.

Its business backlog has jumped to $16 million, compared to $1 million this time last year. Analysts predict the company will earn 10 cents a share this year and twice as much in 1995.

Duratek's promising future and improved financial performance prompted Nasdaq directors in September to move the company from its small capital listing to its more widely used national market.

The move gives the company a broader base of investors and better access to capital markets.

Other major developments of the past 12 months include:

* A $13.9 million contract from Westinghouse Electric Corp. to design and build the world's first commercial-scale machine to transform low-level nuclear waste into glass. The facility is to be used at the federal government's Savannah River nuclear complex.

* The formation of a joint venture with Chem-Nuclear Systems Inc., a Columbia S.C.-based division of WMX Technologies -- the "big daddy of all waste management companies," said Mr. Prince. The venture will build and operate a facility for converting commercial nuclear power plant waste into glass.

* A contract from Westinghouse to demonstrate its DuraMelter technology for treating low-level radiation liquid waste at a nuclear complex in Hanford, Wash.

The demonstration contract put Duratek in position to grab a part of "the biggest single nuclear waste cleanup job in the country," said Thomas T. Taylor, president of Chesapeake Research Inc., a Towson-based brokerage that specializes in Mid-Atlantic based companies.

"That's a $40 billion cleanup," Mr. Taylor said, "and I think Duratek will be a part of it."

Jeffrey C. Robins, vice president of research at Gruntal & Co. in New York, said Duratek "has tremendous potential," but it still has to prove its technology's commercial viability.

"The technology is very promising," Mr. Robins said, "but they still need to make that last great leap to a commercially viable operation. That can be a tough test. It has been the stumbling block for a number of small but promising technology companies."

Can Duratek make the leap? "Yes," replied Mr. Prince. "We haven't done it yet, but all the tests say it's possible. A $16 million backlog says it's possible."

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