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'Hot' nuclear reactor tank on the move in Westmoreland

Trip to dismantling center requires care

Monday, May 15, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A radioactive nuclear reactor tank in which a partial meltdown occurred 40 years ago will be shipped today by special train from Westinghouse's Waltz Mill facility in Westmoreland County.

The contaminated reactor tank is being transported to the ALARON Corp., a low-level radioactive waste processor in Wampum, Lawrence County, for dismantling and eventual disposal at nuclear waste sites in Utah or South Carolina.

Vaughn Gilbert, a Westinghouse Electric Corp. spokesman, said the contamination and radiation levels of the tank are similar to some medical X-rays and "one-millionth or less of what is typically associated with a decommissioned commercial nuclear reactor vessel."

Extreme care has been taken in the packaging of the steel tank, which is 33 feet long and 8 feet wide with 1-inch-thick walls.

All aspects of the shipment from Waltz Mill to Wampum are to be conducted according to strict regulations governing the transport of low-level radioactive material. The tank will be sealed in plastic packaging approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation and inspected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The train will take most of the day to move the reactor tank. From the town of Madison, adjacent to the 850-acre Westinghouse Nuclear Services Division facility in Westmoreland County, it will pass through Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Conway and Beaver Falls before arriving in Wampum.

As a precaution, police departments and emergency services teams in each of the municipalities the train will pass through have been notified.

"I want to emphasize that the threat or risk of this shipment is significantly lower than that associated with chemicals or other materials," Gilbert said.

The reactor tank was part of the first privately owned test reactor to operate in the United States when it went on line in July 1959. The $7 million reactor produced heat but did not produce electric power and was much smaller than commercial reactors operating today.

It was 9 months old when a partial meltdown of a uranium-filled fuel rod in the reactor's core caused radioactive krypton and xenon gases to billow into the air over rural Westmoreland County on April 3, 1960.

Immediately after the partial meltdown, atmospheric radiation was measured at 40 rems per hour near waterlines above the reactor -- more than 130 times the federal human exposure limit in 1960 of 300 millirems per hour. Rems measure radioactive dosage.

Gilbert said the reactor tank now emits 100 millirems of radioactivity, about half the present U.S. Department of Transportation limit. By comparison, a typical X-ray will give its subject a dose of 10 to 100 millirems.

The reactor was shut down for eight months after the accident, which released considerably smaller amounts of radiation than later accidents at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg and Chernobyl in Russia, and closed for good in 1962.

Westinghouse employees at Waltz Mill were evacuated during the accident, then allowed to return six hours later. Cleanup crews, recruited from the ranks of unemployed coal miners and Westinghouse's other locations, performed the initial washing wearing white cotton coveralls, plastic booties, surgical face masks, gloves and goggles. They used soap, household cleanser and women's sanitary pads for rags because they were absorbent.

While no illnesses have been linked to radiation exposure from the accident, cleanup of radiation-contaminated buildings, soil and groundwater has been a continuing effort.

In 1997, Westinghouse began a massive $50 million cleanup that involved cutting up and removing buildings, tanks and pipes contaminated by radioactive water flushed from the reactor during the accident.

Removal of the reactor tank is part of that project, which will include removal of more than 6,000 cubic yards of soil, or enough to cover a football field to a depth of one yard.

Completion of the cleanup, expected in mid-2001, will allow Westinghouse to finally and officially decommission the reactor, which is among 50 nuclear sites on an NRC priority cleanup list.

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