Fluor Idaho Calcine Retrieval Project Manager Howard Forsythe, right, and Chief Engineer Tim O’Connor monitor robotic testing for EM's calcine retrieval project at the Idaho National Laboratory Site.
Fluor Idaho Calcine Retrieval Project Manager Howard Forsythe, right, and Chief Engineer Tim O’Connor monitor robotic testing for EM's calcine retrieval project at the Idaho National Laboratory Site.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – It’s rare for employees supporting EM’s cleanup to come full circle in their careers, but Howard Forsythe has done just that.

Forsythe, a manager with Fluor Idaho, EM’s cleanup contractor at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Site, accepted an engineering job at the site in 1978 after graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in chemical engineering.

His first job was running the Waste Calcining Facility, which was known as the calciner. It used a closed-loop thermal heat source to convert a high-level liquid waste generated through spent nuclear fuel reprocessing to a granular solid called calcine.

The waste he helped transform was transferred to concrete storage vaults called bin sets, which stand out like sentinels over the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center. The New Waste Calcining Facility, which replaced the original plant in 1982, permanently shut down in 2000 after both facilities had generated a total of 4,400 cubic meters of calcine transferred to six bin sets.

How ironic it would be for Forsythe to manage the calcine retrieval project that is tasked with transferring calcine from one bin set to another and closing the first bin set under federal regulations. It’s the first step to prepare the material for out-of-state disposal.

“The big difference between when I came here to create calcine and now is the technology already existed to run the calciner,” Forsythe said. “For the calcine retrieval project, we are having to create high-tech equipment and robotics from scratch to enter a bin set that was never designed to be opened.”

Forsythe manages a small team of mechanical and design engineers who have developed technologies to enter the bin set, recover the calcine from the storage vaults, transfer the granulated material 600 feet to another bin set, and monitor all activities with state-of-the-art, remotely operated cameras that can withstand extremely high radiation fields.

“What draws engineers to this project is the fact that they are creating innovative technologies, testing their designs, and modifying the equipment to ensure its long-term reliability,” he said. “They are pioneers.”

In just over a month, Forsythe will retire after a 42-year career at the INL Site. He will not get to finish seeing the calcine — that he helped to create — retrieved, but he feels he is turning the task over to a talented group of engineers who can carry the baton to the finish line.

“It’s important for those in the nuclear industry to bring up the next generation to lead the industry into the future,” he said. “I’m proud to have mentored these talented engineers who will take over this project. It’s in good hands.”