URS unit leads team likely to clean up U.K.'s Sellafield nuclear plant

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Washington Division of URS Corp. was picked as the preferred bidder to lead a group that will clean up and shut down the Sellafield nuclear complex in England.

Sellafield, on the coast of the Irish Sea in Cumbria in Northwest England, is a major nuclear power and reprocessing facility.

If URS finalizes the contract with the U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, it will work with the other companies -- AREVA and AMEC plc -- for up to 17 years at the site. The deal could be worth as much as $2.5 billion.

It won't be easy work, since the facility has housed and processed a variety of dangerous nuclear fuel and waste for more than half a century.

Sellafield, which was a weapons factory in World War II, has housed atomic power facilities since 1947, when it was named Windscale. Its first reactors started generating power in 1956.

When the United Kingdom decided to develop its own atomic weapons in early 1947, it put a plutonium processing plant on the site.

A fire at the Windscale site in October 1957 released radioactive material. Though shut down for 50 years, that particular pile still contains tons of unstable uranium fuel that must be cleaned up.

Sellafield also has a vitrification plant, similar to one being built by Bechtel Corp. at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington. At the plant dangerous radioactive waste is processed and sealed into glass before being stored.

Neighboring nations like Ireland and Norway have complained that the facility may pollute seawater.

The site has about 10,000 workers, many of whom will lose their jobs over the next three years, according to news reports.

The Washington division of URS also leads a team (including AREVA) cleaning up some 53 million gallons of radioactive waste in 177 underground tanks at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington.

The Hanford Site, near the Columbia River, was used by the U.S. government to make plutonium and store nuclear waste starting in 1943, when it was created as part of the Manhattan Project -- the program that developed the world's first atomic bombs.

When the Cold War ended, the site's reactors were shut down. But the waste remains.

URS' Washington division was formed from Boise-based Washington Group International, which URS bought last November for $3.1 billion in cash and stock. Washington Group was founded in 1912 in Boise as Morrison-Knudsen Corp. The company has traditionally focused on heavy civil engineering projects, including Tarbela Dam on the Indus River in Pakistan, one of the largest earth-filled dams in the world.

Tom Zarges, who worked 20 years at United Engineers & Constructors, a unit of Raytheon bought by Washington Group in 2000, is head of the Washington division.

Posted in |