An apparent design flaw has temporarily shut down GTS Duratek's groundbreaking radioactive waste melter at a federal cleanup site in South Carolina, the company said yesterday.
The announcement caused a meltdown in the company's stock, which fell yesterday by nearly 40 percent -- or $3.50 -- to close at $5.50.
Opened just six months ago, the $7 million melter converts low-level nuclear waste into glass that can be stored for thousands of years. GTS Duratek is the only company in the country employing the process on a commercial scale.
The federal Department of Energy has identified the technology, known as vitrification, as one of two methods to explore for disposing of the nation's stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. In addition, GTS Duratek and a British partner have won major cleanup contracts for federal nuclear waste sites in Idaho and Washington state.
GTS Duratek President and Chief Executive Officer Robert E. Prince said the shutdown should cast no doubt on the usefulness of the vitrification technology.
"It could be a problem as far as short-term earnings, but as far as long-term and being a world leader, this will actually help us maintain our credibility," Prince said.
Prince said the shutdown will allow the company to improve the melter, which he pointed out was the first of its kind.
"This is the Model T compared to what we could design today," Prince said.
He said the melter is similar to a foundry oven -- a metal box lined with heat resistant bricks.
Workers had noticed in the last few days that the outside of the unit was getting hotter than it should, Prince said.
Recent samples of the glass produced by the melter showed higher than expected traces of chromium and zirconia, which are elements found in the insulating bricks. Their presence indicated that the bricks are wearing out, he said.
The company expected the bricks to last about five years, but Prince said their deterioration was probably hastened by two factors: a problem with the flow of the molten glass within the unit, and the failure of patches put on the unit last year in a hasty effort to get it up and running.
Also, the melter is currently air-cooled, which was cheaper at the time it was built than installing a water-cooled system.
"When we designed this, we were little and broke. Now we're the world leader and we've got lots of money," Prince said.
Those problems will be fixed as soon as the unit cools enough to allow the work, he said. The shutdown could last about a month, putting the company a month off its target of finishing the conversion of 600,000 gallons of waste sludge by October.
GTS Duratek has a $14 million contract to perform cleanup work at the Savannah River site.
The company also is in the midst of purchasing Scientific Ecology Group from Westinghouse Electric Corp., an acquisition that will make GTS Duratek the nation's biggest commercial disposer of nuclear waste.
Prince said that deal will not be affected by the shutdown and should close this month.
Pub Date: 4/01/97