Mark Mendiola, a longtime eastern Idaho journalist, recently worked for the Idaho Cleanup Project.
When I first started covering the Idaho Cleanup Project’s many activities at the Idaho National Laboratory site for CH2M-WG Idaho (CWI) as a communications specialist in November 2009, it was especially reassuring for me to witness the high caliber of veteran employees who had racked up many decades of experience working with high levels of radioactivity in a very hazardous environment.
As a “boots-on-the-ground roving reporter” for CWI, I was privileged to experience first hand projects that took Herculean efforts and tremendous resourcefulness to complete, invariably weeks ahead of schedule and substantially under budget.
There was no task too formidable for teams of project managers, radiological control technicians, engineers, demolition workers, laborers, etc., to tackle. A can-do attitude, coupled with a mutual respect and genuine camaraderie among the ranks, combined to work wonders on the Arco Desert.
Stringent safety requirements took top precedence throughout the company and were interwoven throughout CWI’s cultural fabric. Everyone covered each other’s back so all the employees could return safely to their families at the close of business each day. That commendable attitude impressed me from day one. Achieving safety records without lost time injuries for countless employee hours was the norm.
With camera in tow and notebook in hand, I was charged with regularly visiting the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC), the Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC), the Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), the Idaho CERCLA Disposal Facility (ICDF) and the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) area to chronicle the many successful projects under way at each facility. It was an enviable assignment few have had the opportunity to experience.
Many of the projects undertaken by CWI proved to be groundbreaking and even revolutionary in terms of the technology and procedures developed to address specific challenges. During CWI’s 11 years managing the ICP, it often would take the lead among U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractors nationwide and counterparts internationally in introducing standards that have become the norm in the nuclear industry.
It was CWI that proved -- and improved on -- a patented sodium treatment process using spritzing, distilling and immersing techniques at MFC and INTEC now used throughout the DOE complex.
Its intrepid Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) workers safely demolished or removed three nuclear reactors, two hot cells, a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility and more than 200 other buildings and structures over the course of CWI’s DOE contract.
It was astounding a few months ago to watch the massive jaws of heavy equipment skillfully run by D&D operators rip apart and voraciously devour a large MFC building in only a matter of hours like mechanical tyrannosaurus rexes, leaving a Jurassic Park graveyard of metal beams, siding and insulation strewn about in their wake.
They and their co-workers are now concentrating on dismantling the iconic Experimental Breeder Reactor II dome, using an innovative water jet cutting system to peel it like a giant onion before the year ends.
Waste Management personnel, including Packaging and Transportation employees, completed 364 shipments of Remote-Handled Transuranic (RH-TRU) waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, including the first-ever shipment of such waste there, and completed 60 U-233 shipments to the Nevada National Security Site without incident.
RWMC employees exhumed 4.11 acres of 5.69 acres (72 percent) of buried waste required by a 2008 agreement with 97 percent of the 7,485 cubic meters of targeted waste packaged, completing buried waste exhumation at seven Accelerated Retrieval Project (ARP) areas. Work now continues at the Subsurface Disposal Area’s eighth ARP site. Some 7,300 drums and 60 waste boxes have been successfully treated.
CWI Environmental Restoration workers have remediated 136 waste sites and suspected waste sites. They also have reduced 184,400 acres of potential unexploded ordnance areas to 6,300 acres, which protects crews that work out in the sagebrush.
At INTEC, 3,186 units of spent nuclear fuel were transferred from wet to dry storage, and a tank farm where 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing liquid waste are stored underground has been successfully closed. And the list continues …
Even the controversial Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) painstakingly developed from the ground up by CWI has achieved significant strides in advance of processing those 900,000 gallons with state-of-the-art technology. Simulant runs have proven feasible at the 53,000-square-foot facility before the liquid waste is converted into a more stable form. The finish line for that grueling marathon is actually within sight.
Last February, DOE awarded a $1.4 billion, five-year contract for managing the ICP to Texas-based Fluor Idaho, which took effect on June 1. Coinciding with that new contract, many long-time CWI employees have decided to hang it up and retire, including many key managers and engineers who have worked on the IWTU project virtually since its inception.
With the departure of so many seasoned CWI employees occurring at once, a legacy of invaluable experience, an unrivaled safety record and institutional knowledge not easily replaced also is exiting. They professionally transformed a work site fraught with danger into one of DOE’s safest locations with minimal damage or injury.
It’s been my privilege and pleasure to have worked with such a diversified group of talented CWI individuals, ranging from project managers and subcontractors to information technologists, accountants and administrative assistants. Cherished friendships have been nurtured within CWI’s tight knit family. The end of the CWI era leaves some mighty big boots for Fluor Idaho to fill.