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Going Nuclear

A radioactive barge may be headed to Presidents Island.



A former Department of Defense barge is headed for Memphis, courtesy of radioactive-waste disposal company Energy Solutions. The company hopes to use a massive Barnhart crane on Presidents Island to lift the 750-ton radioactive barge out of the water and onto land.

The barge, which contains nuclear contaminants from various military operations, is in Virginia while the company awaits approval of a temporary special-use permit from the Land Use Control Board. A meeting is scheduled for Thursday, June 14th, and, if approved, will also require approval from the Memphis City Council.

"The main reason it's being done in Memphis is because of the crane," says Mark Walker, a spokesperson for Energy Solutions. The crane, affectionately dubbed "Ichabod" after Sleepy Hollow's Ichabod Crane, is one of the largest in the country.

The barge will be lifted onto an outdoor pad lined with layers of fabric and rock, constructed solely to dismantle the barge. The pad will be concave to prevent spillage of rainwater that may become contaminated by radiation. The dismantled barge will then be shipped by train to a radioactive disposal site in Utah.

"We will have 24-hour security seven days a week to make sure everything is safe regarding rainwater leakage," says Dan Shrum of Energy Solutions' environmental compliance office.

The project is slated to take about three months.

Shrum says the ship contains very low levels of radiation. "The people doing the torch-cutting and working on the barge will get the equivalent of about two chest X-rays [worth of radiation]," Shrum says.

Low-level or not, some environmentalists are still concerned. Last year, Sierra Club members fought a proposed incinerator from R.A.C.E. (Radiological Assistance, Engineering, and Consulting), another radioactive-waste disposal company on Presidents Island.

"We're not opposed to this operation. It's not a nuclear incinerator like they were proposing at R.A.C.E.," says Rita Harris, the Sierra Club's environmental justice coordinator. "But I do think this is a dangerous operation if it's not handled properly. We'd like to see state or local authorities say they will monitor these folks."

Representatives from the Tennessee Division of Radiological Health have confirmed that they will conduct an inspection during the dismantling of the contaminated holding tanks. At that time, an inspector will determine if a follow-up inspection is needed.

Harris is also concerned about air emissions that could be released from paint on the vessel containing toxic poly chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as escaping asbestos fibers. The area where the ship will be dismantled is only two miles from Martin Luther King, Jr Park.

The company will work with a licensed asbestos contractor to remove the substance before they cut into the barge.

"We're also going to remove the PCB paint before we use a blowtorch on the vessel," Shrum says. "Our [planned] air emissions are below the regulatory level and were accepted by the local and state air-quality folks."

The project does not require a permit from the local Health Department, and Energy Solutions has already gotten a permit from the state Division of Radiological Health.

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