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Nuclear Waste Process a Failure After $500 Million

Washington - After spending nearly $ 500 million, the Energy Department acknowledged Wednesday that crucial stage in the disposal of millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste is a failure and should have been abandoned years ago.

The failed process involves attempts by scientist to find a way to separate the most highly radioactive material from less radioactive liquids in 35 million gallons of waste stored in drums at the Savannah nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina.

Scientists found that the separation process, when handling such large amounts of waste, products large amounts of explosive benzene gas, making it too dangerous.

Last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson directed that the contractor for the project, a subsidiary of Westinghouse Corp., be replaced and that outside scientists be enlisted to help select an alternative separation technology.

Over the objections of the contractor, Washington Government Services, the Energy Department quietly pulled the plug on the waste separation project more than a year ago. Since then, a number of alternative technologies have been proposed and will be pursued under a new contractor, officials said.

Nevertheless, the problems could add years to a $ 20 billion, 30-year program to dispose of more than 35 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid wastes at Savannah River. The idea is to convert the sludge and the most radioactive materials floating in the liquid into as many as 6,000 glass logs for eventual storage or burial.

About 650 such glass logs, using sludge waste, already have been produced at the $ 2 billion vitrification plant at Savannah River. But separating cesium and other highly radioactive materials in the liquid is crucial if the overall vitrification process is to work, officials said.

In 1983, scientists began pursuing so-called in-tank precipitation to separate the material. While it became apparent as early as 1992 that the process produced large amounts of explosive benzene gas, the technology continued to be pursued. In 1995, a separation plant was constructed.

Ernest Moniz, undersecretary of energy and Richardson's top science adviser, said Wednesday there were "clear warnings" from a review panel in late 1992 or early 1993 that the technology would not work with such large amounts of waste.

A study released Wednesday by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the search for a substitute method for separating the liquid could take 8 to 10 years and cost from $ 1 billion to as much as $ 3.5 billion.

By: The Associated Press. This article appeared in. The Herald Thursday, June 3, 1999. Page 4 - A

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