KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Energy has revived a plan to salvage millions of dollars from radioactive scrap culled from old uranium enrichment operations in Tennessee and Kentucky.
The government has 15,300 tons of low-level contaminated nickel left from cleanup of the former K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, near Knoxville, and a still-active sister plant in Paducah, Ky.
That's enough to fill 765 tractor-trailers or, if melted down, enough to cover an NFL football field 15 inches deep.
Based on current prices, the nickel could be worth more than $300 million, according to Susan Cange, who leads a DOE team working to convert the Oak Ridge site into a commercial industrial park.
Until now, DOE's options for unloading the scrap seemed limited.
Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson issued an executive order in 2000 dashing hopes of selling the metal on the open market because of public fears the stuff could end up in cooking utensils and children's dental braces.
On Friday, DOE made a counterproposal: The nickel could be sold and recycled, but only for products used "in controlled government and-or commercial radiological applications," like commercial nuclear plants.
DOE anticipates it would be used for shielding, radioactive waste containers or large nuclear reactor components.
The proposal would require the metal, which is stored in the open air, to be purified or decontaminated before it is used. It could yield more than 100,000 tons of high-quality stainless steel for the winning company.
A 160-page draft environmental assessment offers another alternative. The nickel could be hauled off to a landfill or left it where it is: Some 5,600 tons in the form of shredded metal in Oak Ridge and 9,700 tons in rusting one-ton ingots in Paducah.
The department concluded there would be no significant environmental harm to any of the options. It hasn't calculated how much it might profit from getting rid of it.
Because of its origin and content, the cache is still considered classified and must be guarded. The massive K-25 building refined uranium for the first atomic bomb and weapons through the Cold War.
"The problem is that we need to find a final resting place for the material in order to complete our cleanup activities at the sites, and we also would like to no longer have to store and protect it in the way are currently protecting it," Cange said.
Cange said several companies are interested in the metal. DOE-Oak Ridge will accept public comments for 30 days on the three alternatives, adjust them accordingly, and possibly make a recommendation to the agency's headquarters by the end of 2008.