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$1.8 million fine for nearby nuclear waste spill

Jan 05, 2011 9:03 am
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Knolls Atomic Power Labs in Niskayuna, along the Mohawk, as seen in a Times Union photograph by Philip Kamrass published today."][/caption]Remember the nuclear waste leaks up in Niskayuna, on the Mohawk River just north and west of Albany, that occurred in October? Brian Nearing of the Times Union has a follow up story today about how the federal government has hit the private company in charge of the cleanup of the radiation-tainted buildings at Knolls Atomic Power Labs with a $1.8 million penalty because of its poor performance that caused radiation leaks into the air and the Mohawk River. The U.S. Department of Energy took that action last month against URS, which has been running the cleanup for about two years as part of a $69 million contract to demolish two Cold War-era research buildings. And all this coming just as a new Congress takes up business today that newly-elected Rep. Chris Gibson has saidwould be looking into the building of nuclear plants nationwide, including two in the Albany area, presumably including Greene County, as recorded by local reporters iin recent weeks.

DOE spokesman Bill Taylor said Tuesday the penalty would come out of the potential $7.6 million maximum bonus that the company could earn under that contract, which is a "cost plus" contract. Cost plus means that DOE pays URS for all its expenses to run the cleanup, and then provides an additional payment as an incentive for good work.

Withholding part of such bonuses is "one tool DOE uses to hold its contractors accountable for poor performance," he said. Taylor said DOE has held back $1.5 million so far from URS, and will hold back the rest from future payments.

The DOE action was first reported in the Dec. 27 edition of Weapons Complex Monitor, a weekly trade publication that covers the agency.

Meanwhile, demolition work remains halted at the Knolls site while DOE considers a "corrective action plan" filed last month by URS, said Taylor.

"We are of course disappointed, but we continue to implement our corrective action plan, which we are confident will prevent future performance issues and allow us to safely complete work by the end of 2011," URS spokesman Jamie Tully said.

It appears URS is now telling DOE that it might not be possible to finish the project as planned by September of this year. In a Dec. 9 letter, URS Project Manager Peggy Hamilton, who has since been replaced, wrote to DOE that is might be necessary to extend the project until December to "provide the most cost effective and lower risk approach." She wrote that DOE will have to "define" how much money it has available to finish the cleanup.

Work at the site has been halted since Nov. 19 as DOE considers changes to the 2-year-old project to remove the contaminated buildings which were used in U.S. atomic weapons research. The buildings have been closed since 1953.

The partially demolished H2 building, where researchers developed a process known as PUREX to extract weapons-grade plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear reactor fuel, is now covered with tarps to prevent further contamination from escaping.

Last week, a DOE investigation found that workers for a private contractor on the cleanup felt pressed by bosses to ignore safety issues and get work done faster in order to meet a September 2011 deadline linked to federal stimulus funding.

DOE and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which investigated a related Oct. 25 spill of radioactive water that drained from the cleanup site into the Mohawk River, have both insisted that contamination poses no threat to public health.

The DOE report into the demolition concluded Washington Group International, a subsidiary of URS performing the work, made missteps that led to an "uncontrolled spread of radioactive contamination" from H2.

The company was pushing to finish work three months earlier than first planned -- by September 2011 rather than December 2011 -- as part of an extra $32 million in federal stimulus funding awarded for the cleanup in April 2009. The federal report said workers faced an "atmosphere of fear" to remain silent over concerns work was not being done safely.

On Sept. 29, workers were using heavy equipment to pull down H2. Workers breaking for lunch activated a radiation alarm when leaving the area, and WGI staff found that four workers had unsafe levels of radiation on their boots, the report said.

Rain was expected the next day, so workers sprayed a chemical fixative meant to keep materials from washing away. The next day, Sept. 30 and into Oct. 1, more than 7 inches of rain fell on the Knolls site.

Air samples taken Sept. 29 and Oct. 3 showed elevated radiation levels, and WGI "recognized that they had an uncontrolled spread of radioactive material," the report said.

On Oct. 5 and 6, tests of the H2 building's slab found beta/gamma radiation was 1,700 times the project-imposed safety limit, and alpha radiation was 550 times such limits.

The report said the Office of Naval Reactors Laboratory's field office found contamination had spread to a 2.3-acre area, where levels were at least 20 times standard limits for beta/gamma radiation.

DOE appointed an investigation board on Oct. 22 to look into the situation. The board arrived at Knolls on Oct. 28 and finished its investigation on Nov. 11.

On Oct. 25, after additional heavy rains at Knolls, about 630 gallons of radiation-tainted water from about the cleanup site escaped a malfunctioning drainage system and spilled into the Mohawk River.

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