UPDATE: DOE plan for Hanford vit plant recommends phased start

September 24, 2013 

A concrete pump arm pours concrete at the High-Level Waste Facility in December 2012.

PHOTO COURTESY BECHTEL NATIONAL

Starting treatment of some of Hanford’s radioactive waste without sending it to the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility could speed work while technical issues at the plant are being resolved, according to a long-awaited Department of Energy report released Tuesday.

The report is a framework, rather than a proposal, that will aid discussions as DOE works with the state of Washington to resolve concerns about Hanford waste treatment and put the treatment program on a sustainable path, said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a message to DOE staff.

Little information has been released about the $12.2 billion vitrification plant over the last year as past Energy Secretary Steven Chu and then Moniz worked with teams of technical experts. They were assigned to identify and resolve technical issues that could affect the plant’s safe and efficient operation, leading to some possible answers in the new report.

The framework “represents a prudent and reasonable approach to immobilize waste in a glass form as soon as practicable while working to resolve the technical issues,” Moniz said. Work has been stopped on portions of the vitrification plant, including the Pretreatment Facility, until technical issues are resolved.

State and Congressional leaders said Tuesday that the framework is helpful, but that much more information is needed.

“I remain committed to ensuring that DOE provides a full, detailed plan for comprehensively addressing the complicated challenges we still face,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement. The framework is a step in the right direction, but not the comprehensive plan she has requested, she said.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks, at least one of which is leaking into the ground. The waste is left from production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.

DOE needs to provide information on the schedule and cost for the report’s recommendations and their effects on court-enforced deadlines for the vitrification plant, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. DOE also must make a case for the safety of the recommendations, he said.

DOE has said previously that the cost of the plant likely will increase, but it cannot prepare a new cost and schedule report until technical issues are resolved.

Key recommendations in the report include sending some of the waste now held in underground tanks directly to the Low Activity Waste Facility to be turned into a stable glass form. The waste would then be disposed of at a Hanford landfill, the Integrated Disposal Facility.

The plant was planned with a Pretreatment Facility that would separate waste into low activity radioactive waste and high level radioactive waste for treatment at separate facilities at the plant.

Most of the waste would be low activity waste and the smaller amount of high level radioactive waste would be turned into a stable glass form and then disposed of in a national repository, originally planned to be at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

To allow some low-activity waste to bypass the Pretreatment Facility, a temporary plant might be built between the Hanford tank farms and the Low Activity Waste Facility to remove some of the solids and radioactive elements from some liquid waste, the report said.

Another possibility would be to set up a mobile system that could be moved from tank to tank to prepare waste for treatment at the Low Activity Waste Facility. However, the movable system might not prepare waste fast enough to support operating the Low Activity Waste Facility at full capacity, the report said.

In addition, up to 1.4 million gallons of waste held in 11 underground tanks might be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a national repository in New Mexico for transuranic waste, without being glassified at the vitrification plant, according to the report. Transuranic waste typically is waste contaminated with certain levels of plutonium.

To allow Hanford tank waste to be sent to the repository in New Mexico, DOE must get permits approved and the waste classified as transuranic rather than high level radioactive waste, which the repository does not accept.

The waste, if reclassified, would need to be processed either tank side or at a new Hanford facility or it might be sent elsewhere for processing in tanker trucks, according to the report.

One of the 11 tanks being considered is believed to be currently leaking waste into the ground beneath it and three more are believed to have leaked waste in the past.

Sending the waste to New Mexico would allow tanks to be emptied significantly sooner than if DOE must wait until the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment and High Level Waste Facilities are ready to accept waste, the report said.

DOE also plans to discuss whether some high level radioactive waste should be sent directly to the vitrification plant’s High Level Waste Facility.

Sending waste with larger plutonium particles directly to the facility would avoid issues of an unplanned nuclear reaction at the Pretreatment Facility, the report said. However, some technical issues first would need to be resolved at the High Level Waste Facility.

DOE will consider the views of the state of Washington, its regulator on tank waste, before it pursues any options discussed in the report, it said.

“We have requested additional technical information to fully understand the details of the phased approach for the treatment of waste in Hanford’s aging tanks,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, in a statement.

DOE has agreed to provide additional details in early October, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. The state wants additional technical information and information on the schedule for work.

Some parts of the framework appear to have merit, such as directly feeding waste to the Low Activity Waste Facility to allow waste treatment to begin while technical issues are being resolved at the Pretreatment Facility, according to the Department of Ecology.

Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group, criticized the framework report.

“The costs of building newer infrastructure to treat Hanford’s tank waste will be astounding,” the group said in its initial analysis of the report. Money would be diverted from getting waste out of leaking tanks, building sturdier tanks, treating contaminated groundwater and excavating contaminated burial grounds, it said.

It called the recommendation to classify tank waste as transuranic waste a risky and potentially lengthy legal maneuver. Instead, DOE should immediately begin building new storage tanks to protect against further tank leaks, it said.

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