Riding a Radioactive Wave

GTS Duratek is poised to become tops in vitrification technology for nuclear and other waste

Columbia, Md.-based GTS Duratek is doing more than just turning low-level radioactive waste into harmless glass -- it's making investors glow. If all goes as planned, the firm's stockholders can expect their original 75-cent-per-share investment to pay off handsomely.

In the next 18 months, GTS Duratek's technology could become the only permanent disposal solution for most of the federal and private facilities around the United States that generate low-level radioactive waste. That includes America's hospitals, nuclear plants and laboratories.

GTS Duratek could find itself smack in the middle of a $100-million-a-year market that is virtually untapped, said Robert Prince, the company's president and CEO. That amount is about what it costs firms, hospitals and labs to store low-level radioactive waste on site. GTS Duratek and Chem-Nuclear Systems Inc. (a Chemical Waste Management Inc. subsidiary), are expected to sign a final deal this week to build and operate a commercial plant in Barnwell, S.C., that would turn low-level radioactive waste into durable glass pellets. Chem-Nuclear already owns the Barnwell site, now home to the only facility in the nation that accepts any low-level radioactive waste. And as of July 1, Barnwell only accepts waste from eight southeastern states.

If the facility goes into operation in 12 to 18 months as planned, GTS Duratek's worth could "dramatically increase," said Prince.

Prince called the venture, which will operate under the name Dura-Chem, the "perfect partnership." Chem-Nuclear provides important experience, resources, and market presence "and we have the proven vitrification technology." GTS Duratek's technology turns a large volume of low-level radioactive waste into stable, marble-sized glass beads that can be safely stored. Even if the glass is broken, the radiation stays trapped.

GTS Duratek's technology was used for the first time on a Department of Energy site on Aug 1. At the DoE's Fernald environmental management project near Cincinnati, GTS Duratek's DuraMelter furnace can daily turn about one ton of slightly radioactive sludge and soil -- a product of nuclear weapons production -- into about a fifth of a ton of glass pellets. A furnace the company is developing for a $14 million contract it won to clean up the Energy Department's Savannah River site will produce up to 15 tons of glass a day.

With the company's success, GTS Duratek stock prices rose. In the last four weeks, from July 29 to Aug. 19, the firm's stock has gone from $3.88 to $4.13.

Jeffrey Robins, an analyst with the New York brokerage Gruntal & Co., said over the last two years GTS Duratek's stock has climbed slowly upwards as the technology has become more accepted. "And its vitrification is on its way to being accepted," he said.

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