Forum on Energy continues to track the progress of Japan’s Fukushima cleanup, which represents an area where the United States government and private sector are eager to help its strategic partner. As reports come in from Japan, Forum on Energy aims to inform readers about the details of nuclear cleanups and where opportunities exist for collaboration between Japan and the United States. We spoke with Kurt Kehler, Vice President of Nuclear Decommissioning & Decontamination at CH2M HILL, to learn more about this field of work and hear about his latest trip to Japan.
Forum on Energy: What are your top priorities as Vice President of Nuclear Decommissioning and Decontamination at CH2M HILL and how does your recent U.S. Commercial Exchange with Japan fit in with those priorities?
Kurt Kehler: My top priority is to bring lessons learned from our U.S. experience to the Fukushima recovery efforts. This is only possible through building strong relationships with the Japan Government and businesses. We have observed that Japanese companies will take the lead role on the recovery efforts. Therefore, we have established working agreements with several Japanese companies to provide assistance. My next priorities are to continue developing these relationships and establish new relationships to further promote CH2M HILLs knowledge and abilities. It is difficult to recognize how critical relationships are to Japanese business, culture and company credentials. The U.S. Commercial Exchange was a good mechanism to help with these relationships.
Forum on Energy: CH2M HILL has completed cleanup at a number of highly contaminated radioactive sites in the U.S., such as Rocky Flats and Miamisburg. Can you tell us what lessons you have learned from your experience in working on these projects?
Kurt Kehler: The most important factor in the cleanup and closure of Rocky Flats, Miamisburg, and other CH2M HILL decontamination projects was public or stakeholder engagement. Reaching a consensus on the end use of the site and the cleanup levels was absolutely critical. The consensus was achieved early enough in the project life cycle to afford an opportunity for success. It is important to note that large scale decontamination projects in the U.S. and elsewhere can and have started before consensus on the cleanup levels and final site end use is established. In fact, large scale efforts should begin even without final agreement. Understanding the decontamination and the associated limitations is important for the public and the stakeholders and helps build consensus. Without it, unseen public health hazards like radioactive contamination carry emotional force that is difficult to address.
Communication is the key item to stakeholder engagement, both internal communication to the project team and external communication to all involved parties. It takes a purposeful and deliberate effort with full time knowledgeable staff to be able to support a large project, gather input, and structure the agreements. The communication needs to be done directly in conjunction with the project by personnel familiar with the decontamination effort and the associated hazards. In the meantime, work has to get started, progress needs to be made, and everyone needs to be convinced what is possible. The communication needs to be totally honest, both the good and the bad, including what can and what cannot be realistically achieved.
This approach is key to CH2M HILLs success in managing large cleanup projects. All government activity is inherently political; naturally avoiding controversies and delivering negative news. An outside company like CH2M HILL can take on the hard issues with the technical background and experience to address them, and appropriately manage the associated risks. Without coming to a consensus on the definition of success, reaching an acceptable solution is not possible.
Forum on Energy: CH2M HILL is currently performing clean up at several other large sites including Hanford, Idaho and Oak Ridge. What particular technologies do you use that might be universally applicable to other large scale decontamination projects?
Kurt Kehler: This is a great question because the current focus at Fukushima is all on technology. Fortunately, radioactive contamination acts the same way in soil, on concrete, asphalt, metal roofs, etc. in Japan as it does anywhere else in the world. In addition, there has been a lot of research and development in the United States and other countries over the past decades to come up with technology to solve these problems. Unfortunately, all this research and development has determined that there is no easy cost-effective technology to solve this problem.
The extraction or separation of Cesium from the contaminated material is very difficult and often is destructive to the original materials. We have learned repeatedly that it is more effective, economical, and acceptable to all stakeholders to remove the contaminated material as waste. The focus on technology must then be on making sure you remove only the minimum amount necessary. This helps reduce the amount of waste and makes restoration easier. So the technology we believe would be the most useful is the detection equipment to characterize the contamination before, during, and after removal. The actual technologies to remove the materials are often not very complex, although the general approach to decontamination is very important from a cross contamination and a worker safety perspective.
Forum on Energy: There have been concerns expressed on the slow decontamination progress at Fukushima, which is being attributed to lack of waste storage. How would your recommended approach address this challenge?
Internationally, waste management is a huge issue with every decommissioning or decontamination project almost without exception. Other countries with high property values face issues similar to Japan, and returning people to their homes is directly related to everyones willingness to accept properly engineered and controlled storage. Im not trying to sound repetitive, but we are coming back around to consensus building again. The problem needs to be embraced before the resolution can emerge. Because decontamination technologies cannot solve the problem alone, real progress will require a pragmatic approach to safe storage of waste.