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Feds push for low-cost commercial treatment of Hanford waste. State has concerns

The Department of Energy wants to try treating more waste held in underground tanks at Hanford by mixing it into concrete-grout rather than glassifying it.
The Department of Energy wants to try treating more waste held in underground tanks at Hanford by mixing it into concrete-grout rather than glassifying it. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The Department of Energy is making plans to encase 2,000 gallons of waste now held in Hanford’s underground tanks in concrete-like grout, part of a continuing demonstration project.

DOE recently released a fact sheet that indicated its interest in continuing the demonstration project and listing what it sees as the benefits of the project, called the test bed initiative.

The project is a departure from plans to turn radioactive and hazardous chemical waste into a stable glass form at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction at the nuclear reservation.

But DOE still needs to get other parties on board.

The Washington Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator, has sent DOE a list of questions about the project. The state would need to issue permits and approvals for some aspects of the demonstration project.

The first melter at the Hanford nuclear reservation's Waste Treatment Plant has been assembled, with only some final electrical hookups needed to start turning radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal as soon as 2022.

“Current core work at the Hanford Site is already being deferred and delayed due to a lack of funds,” said Maia Bellon, Ecology director, in the letter to DOE. “We are concerned about (Department of) Energy pursuing a new initiative that could divert even more funding away from existing priorities that are tied to consent decree deadlines.”

The project also faces a congressional hurdle.

Language included in the Senate’s fiscal 2019 Hanford budget recommends no money be spent on the test bed initiative.

The Senate budget language must be reconciled with the House budget language for the same year, which was bullish on the project. It directed $15 million be spent on the next phase of the demonstration.

The first phase of the demonstration project, grouting three gallons of the 56 million gallons of waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks, was successfully completed in December.

Capture 3 gallons.JPG
The blue drum holds three gallons of waste, the first Hanford radioactive tank waste being shipped off the nuclear reservation for treatment and disposal. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The waste was sent to nearby Perma-Fix Environmental Solutions in Richland to be encapsulated in concrete-like grout. It then was sent to a Waste Control Specialists disposal cell built for low-level government waste in Texas.

The initial phase of the project was believed to be the first time Hanford tank waste was sent off site for treatment and disposal.

The second phase of the project, treating 2,000 gallons of tank waste and sending it to the Texas repository, could be completed by September 2019, according to DOE.

The DOE fact sheet said the project, which will be used only for low-activity radioactive waste, has the potential for significant cost savings.

A Government Accountability Organization report released in May 2017 said that Waste Control Specialists, which would profit from the waste grouting initiative, has said that grouting waste would cost up to $16.5 billion less than expanding the planned Hanford vitrification plant.

The plant was never planned to be large enough to treat all of Hanford’s low-activity waste in a reasonable time frame.

About 90 percent of the tank waste is expected to be low-activity waste after the waste is separated into low-activity and high-level radioactive waste.

All high level waste is planned to be vitrified.

The grouting demonstration project could free up space in double-shell tanks, DOE said. The waste in 149 leak-prone, single-shell tanks is being emptied into 27 double-shell tanks, which are nearing capacity, until the waste can be treated for disposal.

The state of Washington and the Hanford Advisory Board have advocated for more double-shell tanks to be built to provide more space for waste to be emptied from single-shell tanks. DOE has been opposed to building more storage tanks, saying it would rather spend money on treating waste.

The demonstration project also would show near-term progress by shipping tank waste out of Washington for commercial disposal, DOE said.

The Department of Energy wants to continue a demonstration project that would allow some Hanford tank waste to be encased in concrete-like grout rather than glassified at the vitrification plant under construction at the nuclear reservation Courtesy Bechtel National

Construction on the Hanford vitrification plant started in 2002 with no tank waste expected to be treated at the plant until 2021 at the earliest.

The state will allow low-activity radioactive waste to be buried in a Hanford landfill if it is vitrified, but Hanford does not have a disposal facility permitted for tank waste that is grouted.

The disposal site in Texas, which has different geology than Washington, has been in operation only since 2013.

In June, Ecology’s director sent a letter to Anne White, the DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, saying it had concerns with the test bed initiative moving to the second phase, including what it would mean for consent degree deadlines.

The federal court-enforced consent decree sets the 2023 deadline for starting to treat low-activity waste at the vitrification plant, requires the vitrification plant to be also treating high-level waste and fully operating by 2036, and sets deadlines for emptying single-shell tanks.

Bellon asked for a complete cost estimate for the project — from collecting and preparing a low-activity waste stream for grouting, through the shipping the waste to Texas and disposing of it there.

She asked why DOE wants to pursue the test bed initiative now, rather than wait until the mid-2030s, when additional treatment capacity for low-activity waste is expected to be needed at the vitrification plant.

Other questions covered how waste would be transported to Perma-Fix in Richland for grouting and how the grouted waste would be transported to Texas.

Bellon also wants to know what oversight DOE will have of the Perma-Fix treatment process to make sure it meets standards set for the Texas repository and what DOE will do if the repository does not accept the grouted waste.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews