A preliminary Department of Energy estimate for disposing of high-level radioactive waste from Hanford and other defense sites at a separate national repository omitted billions of dollars in expected costs, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this week.
It also questioned whether a plan was overly optimistic to have a national repository for commercial used nuclear fuel ready in 2048 and a repository for Hanford and other defense nuclear waste sooner.
Benefits and costs should be better understood before DOE commits to a separate repository for defense waste, the GAO report said. A better cost analysis might not show that a separate defense site would save money.
Hanford’s high-level waste was planned to be sent to Yucca Mountain, Nev., for disposal after it is glassified at the Hanford vitrification plant. However, the Obama administration shut down work at the Nevada site.
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In 2015, based on information from DOE, President Obama found that a separate repository for defense high-level radioactive waste was required. Two months ago DOE issued draft plans for a method to choose a site and develop a defense waste repository.
Most of the defense high-level radioactive waste now is at the Hanford nuclear reservation and DOE’s site in Savannah River, S.C.
DOE’s preliminary cost and schedule estimates for the two-repository approach that it provided to the president are not reliable.
Hanford and Savannah River waste is generally cooler and less radioactive than commercial used nuclear fuel, allowing different geology and repository designs to be considered, according to information DOE provided to Obama. It also is no more than 15 percent of the nation’s total nuclear waste by volume and contains just 3 percent of the total waste’s radioactivity.
DOE also has proposed using a deep and narrow borehole to dispose of Hanford’s radioactive cesium and strontium capsules now stored underwater in central Hanford.
DOE gave a rough, preliminary estimate for a repository for defense waste at $13 billion to $18 billion if a site with salt bed geology is chosen, or up to $34 billion to $44 billion if waste is disposed of at a site with granite or other crystalline geology.
But the estimates did not account for some expenses before and after construction, the GAO report said.
DOE earlier estimated that selecting a new combined repository would cost $3 billion. A process is planned that would seek communities to volunteer to be home to a nearby repository. It also did not figure the cost of characterizing the site. For Yucca Mountain, the cost was about $8.5 billion.
In addition, packaging and shipping high-level waste to a repository would cost about $20 billion based on an earlier estimate, the GAO report said.
Stakeholders from potentially affected states and communities have raised concerns about the potential increased costs to defense appropriations.
While a combined repository would be paid for mostly with fees collected from commercial nuclear power surcharges, the cost of a separate defense waste repository likely would come from the same defense sources as environmental cleanup money.
“Stakeholders from potentially affected states and communities have raised concerns about the potential increased costs to defense appropriations,” the GAO report said.
To meet DOE’s proposed schedule for opening the two repositories, DOE would need to complete site selection activities in six to 16 years. But in 2013, DOE reports to Congress indicated that could take 28 years.
DOE likely will face significant opposition as it looks for sites, based on its experience in finding a location to drill a test borehole.
Plans for a test borehole in North Dakota and then South Dakota have been halted. Local residents were concerned that if research on the test borehole is successful, the borehole then would be proposed for radioactive waste disposal.
DOE told the GAO that following the Obama administration’s approval of the concept, it planned to analyze in greater detail the benefits, risks, costs and schedule of a separate defense waste repository.