Joette Nanney and her family got used to friends teasing them about living next to a nuclear-fuel plant.
But in the 22 years that she and her husband and their three children lived across from the Westinghouse nuclear-fuel-rod processing plant in Hem atite, Nanney says none of them ever glowed in the dark.
The facility is closed now, and Nanney says she has no real concern that regulators will find hidden problems there when Westinghouse begins a cleanup of the site.
“We’ve never had any health problems,” said Nanney, 44. “There’s lots of jokes and things by friends: ‘Oh, you live at the nuclear plant!’ But we all are basically healthy. I think they did keep it pretty safe.” Westinghouse acquired the plant two years ago after its parent company, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., bought the nuclear-fuel holdings of Swiss-based ABB, which had operated the facility since 1989.
The plant, west of Festus on Highway P, made nuclear-fuel-rod assemblies for commercial power plants and refined about 270 tons of uranium a year.
The manufacturing process involved the handling of uranium, anhydrous ammonia, hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid and nitrogen.
Westinghouse owns 228 acres in Hematite, about seven acres of which was used in the plant’s operations. Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. opened the facility in 1956.
Westinghouse ceased production at the Hematite plant last July, to consolidate its operations at the company’s plant in Columbia, S.C.
Since then employees have been shipping out residual powders and equipment while working to develop a plan to identify what radiological agents and other contaminants might remain at the site, and how the company plans to clean it up.
Some of what is there already is known. Low levels of technetium-99, a radioactive fission product believed to have come to the plant in the Cold War, turned up in the plant’s monitoring wells in the early 1990s.
Later tests on drinking-water wells around the plant showed no contamination.
Kevin Hayes, manager of environmental health and safety at the plant, said the presence of the material was no surprise to company officials.
“We knew that was there,” Hayes said. “I think that was an unpleasant fact of life for the Department of Energy and those guys because they’re the ones who so generously shared that with us.”
The challenge now, Hayes says, is to find the source of the contamination and develop a plan to either contain or remove it.
The study will also involve core drilling of 40 unlined pits on the property where waste materials and chemicals used in the manufacturing process were dumped between 1956 and 1972, before federal regulations banned such practices.
Officials need to identify what is in the pits before submitting a cleanup plan to state and federal regulators.
“First you have to make sure that you’ve done a good, full-scope sweep to identify all the potential contaminants of concern,” Hayes said. “Then, you do a feasibility study to see what technology is out there, versus what has been found, to determine whether it’s extractable or if it’s something you’re stuck with.”
The process is expected to cost several million dollars and take several years to complete.
B ut Hayes says that Westinghouse will move as quickly as possible.
“We’re not interested in lingering any longer than necessary,” Hayes said. “We want to get this (property) back to a useable condition to where someone can benefit from it. We don’t want it to be a eyesore for the community.
“We want to get it back where it’s a benefit to the community, with no perception of health risk.”
The study plan had been expected to be completed in December, but Jan Strasma, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Westinghouse officials requested and were given more time to complete the plan because the company had only recently assumed ownership of the plant.
Strasma said the NRC was trying to arrange a meeting with Westinghouse in late March or early April, to discuss the plan.
“We’re years away from having a full site characterization of what’s there and what needs to be cleaned up,” Strasma said. “We’re just at the very beginning of that process.”
Strasma said any hazards posed by the plant’s operation had been reduced and would continue to decrease, the longer the plant was shut down.
Jerry McKee, who lives on a 90-acre, beef-cattle farm two-tenths of a mile from the plant site on Highway P, said she was relieved that the plant was shut down, not because of the threats posed by the facility itself but because of the potential for terrorist attack.
“I’m kind of relieved that there is no longer going to be a nuclear plant next door, with all the terror that there’s been in the country,” McKee said.
McKee worked in the plant’s health physics department from 1968 to 1972. She later went on to earn a degree in nursing and retired from the Jefferson County Health Department. She said she never expected the cleanup to go quickly.
“Whenever you’re talking about cleaning up a unit like this, you’re talking about a 10- or 15-year program,” McKee said. “It’s going to take them a lot of time.”