Extreme makeover for a nuclear factory

Quick. Name a huge - and hugely important - federal government project completed decades ahead of time and billions of dollars under cost estimates. Stumped? Here's a hint. It involves the first cleanup of an idled US nuclear weapons facility.

In 1994, a study by the Department of Energy (DOE) estimated it would take 60 years and $37 billion to clean up and demolish the Denver area's Rocky Flats site, a veritable city of government buildings that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.

But last week, in a rare development that holds lessons for the DOE's 38 nuclear weapons facilities, the contractor hired in 1995 to scrub Rocky Flats said the job was done. The 800 buildings had been demolished, the contaminated soil and plutonium removed to guarded storage sites. Time: 10 years. Cost: less than $7 billion.

The DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency, and state officials still must verify that the site - which will be turned into a wildlife refuge - meets their safety standards.

Because the stakeholders have been working closely together, it's unlikely something major will turn up. Even if it did, though, the project, run by Kaiser-Hill Co., still deserves high praise for the innovations that brought it to an early and cost- effective conclusion - and aided the world's nonproliferation effort.

Initially, progress was excruciatingly slow, relations with the various players contentious, and Kaiser-Hill received enforcement actions for safety violations. But frustration prompted changes in approach, and the project turned around.

When Kaiser-Hill renegotiated its contract in 2000, for instance, the DOE agreed to an unusual incentive package - eventually more than $500 million and well worth it - to finish early (by December 2006) and under budget. Kaiser-Hill passed the incentive all the way down to hourly workers. Penalties for safety infractions discouraged shoddy work.

Congress, tired of inertia, also tried something new. It guaranteed stable funding for the life of the contract. No more waiting for dollars each year.

Kaiser-Hill opted for complete transparency. It made all of its data available to state regulators and community groups, and it talked regularly with them. That restored trust.

It also involved workers in planning, and encouraged technical innovation. That resulted in a new way of handling huge equipment - decontaminating it to low-level radioactive waste standards, then spraying it with a hardening goop that became its own shipping container. A month-long process of cutting up equipment shrank to a day-long one.

It would be a relief if a "Rocky Flats" model could be repeated in the nuclear power industry, stymied by waste-disposal issues. That's unlikely, though. For one thing, commercial nuclear power doesn't have the luxury of DOE facilities to accept its spent fuel rods. Alas, the industry is still waiting for permanent storage below Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

But those cleaning up other DOE nuclear weapons sites, such as the difficult one in Hanford, Wa., can learn from Rocky Flats.

While much about Rocky Flats was unique, surely flexibility, transparency, incentives, and innovation can cross state lines.

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