DOE not ready to commit to expanding vit plant

April 19, 2012 

The Department of Energy is not ready to commit to expanding the Hanford vitrification plant to treat all 56 million gallons of radioactive tank waste, upsetting its regulators at the state of Washington.

DOE will not choose a preferred method for treating all Hanford tank waste in a massive environmental study about to be completed, officials said.

"To say that we are exceedingly disappointed is an understatement," said Suzanne Dahl, tank treatment section manager for the state Department of Ecology.

The state believes that the data in the draft Tank Closure and Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement released in late 2009 make a clear environmental protection case for expanding Hanford's vitrification plant by adding a second Low Activity Waste Facility. The final version of the massive study, which has been in the works for eight years, is expected in June.

"We do not think it is forthright and genuine to put the second LAW (Low Activity Waste Facility) as the preferred alternative," said Stacy Charboneau, deputy manager for the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection. "We feel very much at DOE that as good stewards of taxpayer money, we need to look at alternatives."

Those alternatives could be less expensive or treat the waste more quickly, she said.

The $12.2 billion vitrification plant under construction originally was planned as the first of two plants to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks. The waste is left from the past production of weapons plutonium.

But in 2003, the plant's design was changed to treat all of the high-level radioactive waste, which will be sent to a deep geological repository, and approximately half of the low-activity waste, which will be buried at Hanford without the additional environmental protection offered by a deep geological repository. At issue is what to do with the rest of the low-activity waste.

DOE considered alternative treatments in the draft study, including steam reforming, grouting and bulk vitrification, which would glassify the waste in large blocks. The vitrification plant would turn it into smaller glass logs.

The draft study also included the option of expanding the vitrification plant by adding a second Low Activity Waste Facility.

"Vitrification is a mature technology that is ready to be implemented with no further testing," the state wrote in the introduction included as part of the draft environmental study. "(It) produces a well-understood waste form that is extremely protective of the environment."

Other waste forms have not proved to be as protective of the environment, Dahl said.

"Someone can always say when the next set of data comes out it will be better," she said. "But all the assumptions ... to date have never proved out."

DOE spent years investigating grouting and then bulk vitrification without finding either to be a viable solution. But there still are possibilities, such as removing some of the radioactive technetium from waste before it is grouted, or further developing steam reforming, which produces a granular ceramic waste form, that DOE may explore, according to DOE.

As good stewards of taxpayer money, DOE wants to continue to look at alternate ways of treating waste until a deadline in fall 2014, Charboneau said. The Tri-Party Agreement requires that if DOE chooses a plan other than adding a second Low Activity Waste Facility, it must submit a report on the options in fall 2014 and reach agreement with the state in 2015.

The state is concerned not only about how well an alternate technology would protect the environment, but also about whether it would lead to delays in getting all the waste treated for disposal. Now the state expects a design for a second Low Activity Waste Facility from DOE in 2016 to put the project on pace to be treating waste in 2022 as required.

The end goal is meeting a Tri-Party Agreement deadline to have all waste to be treated in 2047. That deadline was set when the state and DOE reached agreement on a major renegotiation of the Tri-Party Agreement in 2010, with the state extending the deadline for treating all waste from 2028-47.

"The delay was not an easy pill to swallow," but the state received a commitment then that a second facility would be up and running in 2022, Dahl said.

DOE is looking for an alternative that would meet the 2047 end date and possibly be less expensive, Charboneau said.

No place else in the world vitrifies its low-activity waste, she said.

However, there are some differences at Hanford, where large amounts of waste are being disposed of and soil and ground water are contaminated. A small amount of leaching from buried low-activity waste will contribute to other contamination to reach cumulative totals that exceed state standards, particularly far in the future when the site is not controlled, according to data in the draft environmental study.

The state plans to write a revised, strongly worded forward to the final environmental study to make its position clear on favoring vitrification for the additional low-activity waste. The low-activity waste combined is expected to account for 90 percent of the tank waste by volume, with just 10 percent of the waste being vitrified and sent as high-level waste to a deep geological repository.

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