On the surface, it seems like some form of voodoo technology that's too good to be true.
GTS Duratek Inc., a young Columbia-based company, has come up with a fresh approach to treating low-level radioactive waste. The new technique promises to save the federal government billions of dollars as it is used in the long and arduous task of cleaning up nuclear-weapon sites around the country.
Although the Duratek process must be proved in the field, a local stock analyst who follows the company said it could be the kind of development that puts the Howard County company on track to becoming "one of the more successful growth companies of the 1990s."
It's so simple, said Robert E. Prince, Duratek's 45-year-old president and chief executive, that he wonders why somebody has not done it a long time ago.
Trying to explain a rather complex subject in simple terms, Mr. Prince said that the technology Duratek has developed in conjunction with the Catholic University of America and the Department of Energy for the first time regards the waste to be cleaned as a resource in the cleaning process.
The Duratek system makes use of ingredients in the waste in its process of transforming the hazardous material into glass, the preferred form for storing radioactive waste.
The process starts by using the already contaminated water to clean the soil. About 80 percent of the soil is returned to the earth. The soil cleaning is performed by an environmental unit of Lockheed Corp. under a contract to Duratek.
The next phase takes the still-contaminated soil, which contains silica used in making glass, and places it in a vat along with the radioactive sludge from the waste-storage pits, Mr. Prince explained.
"Then you may add a little salt and the [radioactive] water," he said. "You mix it with something like a giant Mixmaster blender," he said, "and you end up with something that looks like chocolate fudge mix or cake batter."
Pop it into the oven (in this case a sophisticated machine developed by Catholic University called a Duramelter) and bake at 2,000 degrees. Out of the other end of the machine come nuggets of glass, shaped like marbles and about an inch in diameter.
The radioactive waste is trapped in the glass, Mr. Prince explained, like the green color in a beer bottle. "You can break the bottle, but the green stays in the glass. It's the same with our process. It [the radioactive material] will stay in the glass for thousands of years."
"We start out with radioactive water, soil contaminated with uranium and mixed waste sludge," Mr. Prince said. "We end up with clean water, clean soil and glass."
In somewhat of a coincidence, Mr. Prince said, the contaminated sludge contains magnesium fluorides and calcium carbonate "that are great fluxing agents used in making glass."
"The beauty of the system," he said, "is that when we are done, there are no contaminated by-products left over."
He explained that even though the glass is still radioactive, it can be placed in 55-gallon drums for storage with no fear that it will ever leak into the soil or ground water.
"The key is that we have reduced the cost of making glass by taking this approach and redesigning the melter," Mr. Prince said. "That's what going to make it an economic success . . . economically viable."
In developing the process, Duratek, like other companies, has its eye on Department of Energy plans to spend $30 billion over the next five years and between $200 billion and $600 billion over the next 30 years to clean up low-level radioactive waste.
By eliminating the normal process of storing contaminated soil in concrete bunkers, Mr. Prince said, the company can cut the cost of nuclear waste cleanup by one-third. "That's their number," he said referring to a study done for the Department of Energy by Westinghouse Environmental Corp., comparing the storage of waste in concrete bunkers with making it into glass. "We think we can beat the hell out of that number."
David Kozlowski, Department of Energy branch chief involved in nuclear waste cleanup, said only that the department "feels there is great potential for cost savings. That's why we're pursuing it," he added.
"It works in the laboratory," Mr. Prince said of the procedure perfected at Catholic University's Vitreous State Laboratory in Washington. The company must now prove that it works in the field.
Duratek was recently awarded a $3.4 million Department of Energy contract to demonstrate its process at the government's recently closed uranium production and nuclear weapons complex at Fernald, Ohio. That work is scheduled to begin in February or March.
The contract has captured the attention of at least one local stock analyst.
Thomas T. Taylor, head of Chesapeake Research, 3/8 3/8 TC Towson-based brokerage house specializing in mid-Atlantic companies, said GTS Duratek's approach to cleaning mixed waste could bode well for both the company and investors.
He sees Duratek emerging as possibly one of the more successful growth companies of the decade.
Duratek's stock, which trades on the NASDAQ system and closed yesterday at $3.125, up 37.5 cents, "could explode in the future," Mr. Taylor said. He cautioned, however, that that might not occur in the near future.
"Over the next year, all they can hope for is to prove their technology and have it accepted," he said. "Then, perhaps in '94 or '95, there could be an explosion in revenues."