West Valley Decommission Continues With Worker Safety In Mind

OLEAN – “As the head of one of these jobs, you always have to worry about someone making that wrong step and getting hurt or killed. This is dangerous work,” Dan Coyne, president of CHBWV, the decommissioning team in charge of the former West Valley Nuclear Demonstration Project, told members of the Cattaraugus County Board of Health.

Of the accomplishments Coyne said he is proud of, is that his crews on the site have gone into the 10th month of the calendar year with no recordable injuries. In the business they are in, that is a feat, he said. It is a dangerous business that requires the use of large machinery and close contact with many forms of hazardous waste.

His company took the helm at the site, situated along the northern border of Cattaraugus County in August 2011. Their job has been to secure and decommission all the buildings on the site, leading up to demolition of the structures once used to encapsulate spent fuel rods in glass for storage.

A recordable injury is one that requires medical attention with medicine or prolonged visit, according to Coyne. He said the facility has seen the regular problems, like a bee sting, but nothing serious.

“We have instituted a policy of 24/7 health,” Coyne said. “We care about what they do at home, as well as on the job. We have a ‘know your numbers’ program that can give you your body’s age.”

The company has also instituted a walking program, giving all employees a pedometer and walking challenges at lunch time, he said.

Along with the safety of those on the site, a recent drill took readiness into account, Coyne continued. The energy emergency exercise was meant to measure the response to a complex emergency situation at the facility. The exercise conducted dealt with a contamination fire with injuries. One of the injured had to be medevaced from the facility. According to the scenario, the aircraft would become part of the situation by crashing into the facility, creating a larger emergency.

“We did very well with it,” he said. “As you can see, we work on a very complex scale.”

In terms of project progress, Coyne told the members of the board that everything looks to be right on track, despite a few setbacks. One of those setbacks comes in the form of the federal government shutdown. Not knowing how the shutdown is going to affect the Department of Energy’s budget for projects like West Valley, business has continued as usual. The shutdown could affect one aspect of the project in that the melter and accompanying buildings used to encapsulate the spent rods may not be able to be moved off site as has been in the works.

The melter, a single unit, would need to be transported to a transloading station, where it would be loaded onto a railcar for transport to another facility, he said. When that piece was brought to the site, it arrived on a 50-axle truck trailer. Permission for that move may not come under a government shutdown.

Another short-lived problem cropped up when, as crews were removing soil for a solid base on a storage pad that is being constructed, a small amount of old asphalt was found to have small amount of contamination.

“The levels were minuscule,” Coyne said, “but we took the time to shut everything down, run tests and make sure it was gone. IT appears it was nothing more than a small spill on the asphalt.”

The pad that will be poured in the coming weeks will sit on 13 feet of new, compressed soil. The pad, itself, will be 3 feet thick, reinforced with 1/8-inch rebar. That pad is where the glass-coated rods will be stored once they are removed from their current home in one of the buildings on the site.

The pad will have 56 vertical storage casks on top of it. The rods, encased in steel tubes, will be placed in these concrete tubes and sealed as they await the opening of a federal repository. Each of the casts will weigh around 84.5 tons apiece. The pad and the tubes have been designed to withstand earthquakes, flooding and some powerful winds, Coyne said. The pad is scheduled to be ready by the end of October, for use in November.

The mission of the phase, according to Coyne, in decommissioning and demolishing buildings, has been successful. He said his crews have removed 30,000 square feet of building footprint, and have removed over 20,000 trucks of waste created by previous contractors, and another 100,000 cubic feet of waste generated since August 2011.

The current phase is scheduled to be completed in 2018, with a final phase of determining the future of the site still being “years and years away,” according to Coyne.