SRS pump will head to Japan

The world's largest concrete pump, deployed at the construction site of the U.S. government's $4.86 billion mixed oxide fuel plant at Savannah River Site, is being moved to Japan in a series of emergency measures to help stabilize the Fukushima reactors.

"The bottom line is, the Japanese need this particular unit worse than we do, so we're giving it up," said Jerry Ashmore, whose company, Augusta-based Ashmore Concrete Contractors, Inc., is the concrete supplier for the MOX facility.

The 190,000-pound pump, made by German-based Putzmeister has a 70-meter boom and can be controlled remotely, making it suitable for use in the unpredictable and highly radioactive environment of the doomed nuclear reactors in Japan, he said.

"There are only three of these pumps in the world, of which two are suited for this work, so we have to get it there as soon as we can," Ashmore said in an interview Thursday. "Time is very much a factor."

The pump was moved Wednesday from the construction site in Aiken County to a facility in Hanahan, S.C., for minor modifications, and will be trucked to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where it will be picked up by the world's largest cargo plane, the Russian-made Antonov 225, which will fly it to Tokyo.

The move to Atlanta, he added, will require expedited special permits from Georgia's Department of Transportation, because of the weight of the equipment. If all goes well, the pump will be en route to Japan next week.

According to Putzmeister's Web site, four smaller pumps made by the company are already at work at Fukushima pumping water onto the overheated reactors.

Initially, the pump from Savannah River Site, and another 70-meter Putzmeister now at a construction site in California, will be used to pump water -- and later will be used to move concrete.

"Our understanding is, they are preparing to go to next phase and it will require a lot of concrete," Ashmore said, noting that the 70-meter pump can move 210 cubic yards of concrete per hour.

Putzmeister equipment was also used in the 1980s, when massive amounts of concrete were used to entomb the melted core of the reactor at Chernobyl.

In addition to the equipment now at Fukushima and the two 70-meter pumps being moved from the U.S., a contractor in Vietnam has given up a 58-meter pump so it can be diverted to Japan, and two 62-meter pumps in Germany were loaded on Wednesday for transport to Tokyo.

Ashmore said officials have already notified Shaw AREVA MOX Services, which is building the MOX plant for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, that the pump was being moved and will not be returned because it will become contaminated by radiation.

"It will be too hot to come back," Ashmore said.

The MOX complex, scheduled to open in 2016, is designed to dispose of 32 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear bombs by blending small amounts of the material with uranium to make nuclear fuel for commercial power reactors. Its design calls for 170,000 cubic yards of concrete strengthened with 35,000 tons of reinforcing steel bars.

The absence of the pump will not affect the U.S. project's construction schedule, Ashmore said, noting that there are several slightly smaller units still at the MOX site and being used by the civil contractor, Alberici Constructors.

There is also the third existing 70-meter Putzmeister that is in the U.S., but not in a state where it could easily be retrofitted for shipment to Japan.

"We may try to buy that one later if we need to," he said.