Sitting in a special warehouse near the James River in Virginia is a 220-ton piece of radioactive scrap metal about to begin a controversial 8,000-mile voyage.
At the end of this month, if there are no further delays, the US Department of Energy will load it on a barge and ship it down the Atlantic Coast, through the Panama Canal, and up the Columbia River to the Battelle Northwest Laboratory in Richland.
There, a team of scientists is planning a three-year study to find out why this steam generator failed, and why similar pieces of equipment used in nuclear reactors are failing with disconcerting frequency.
The failed steam generator is believed to be the largest piece of radioactive equipment ever pulled out of a nuclear power plant and shipped across the country. This kind of generator is a key component in pressurized light-water reactors similar to the Three Mile Island, Pa., nuclear plant.
The 45-foot-long machine contains about 40 miles of small tubes in which hot, radioactive water from the reactor core interacts with nonradioactive water to form the steam that runs an electric power plant.
In time, radioactive particles from the core build up a layer of corrosion in the generator tubing, eventually causing cracks and leaks, and interfering with the operation of the plant.
This corrosion has become a major concern in the nuclear industry, since it means generators designed to last 20 to 30 years must be replaced in less than 10 years.
The Surry station near Norfolk, Va., is the first utility to replace all of its steam generators -- at a cost of nearly $100 million, not counting the cost of replacement power.
About a dozen other power stations are in line for similar expensive replacements, experts say.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) asked for one of the generators so it could have the corrosion problems studied, says a spokesman for Virginian Electric Power Company.
The Department of Energy arranged to purchase the $4 million machine for $1, thus relieving the utility of responsibility for the generator in transit to a laboratory at Hanford, in southeastern Washington State.
Special care has to be taken in moving the generator, and the federal Department of Transportation has been asked to grant exemption from some of its rules, which do not envision transport of such a large piece of contaminated equipment.
At one time the Energy Department considered encasing the whole thing in 50 tons of lead, but it gave up the idea as being too expensive and impractical.
Now, the plan is to place the generator in the middle of an enclosed barge, lining the sides with concrete to keep radiation emissions within Transportation Department standards.
The project has generated considerable opposition from antinuclear groups, especially on the East Coast.
Leading the opposition is the Potomac Alliance of Washington, D.C., which has complained about the lack of public hearings on the Transportation Department exemption and lack of an overall environmental impact statement.
The Department of Transportation is expected to act on the exemption request before March 31, after receiving written comments.
The Battelle Laboratory has written an environmental assessment that it hopes will be adequate. A full-blown environmental impact statement would delay the program for months, officials say.
Among other things, Battelle says there would be negligible consequences even if the barge were to sink in the Columbia River during its voyage to Hanford. There is only one spot in the river where the water is deep enough to possibly rupture the generator, releasing contamination into the river, says project manager Vince Fitzpatrick.
Once it reaches Hanford, the generator will be stored out of doors for about one year, until a special building is completed.
Radiation should be low enough to allow "hands on" work rather than remote handling, Mr. Fitzpatrick says.
The total project cost is about $6 million, including the cost of shipping and the new building.
Battelle's mandate from the NRC is a rather vague program "aimed at improving the regulatory process." Technically, the program is designed to improve the safety, but not necessarily the efficiency, of power plants, R. Fitzpatrick says.
Research into a more efficient and lasting generator design is being considered by the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-funded organization, he says.