A Hanford first: tank waste to be treated off site. Could it lead to less costly cleanup?

The blue drum holds the first Hanford radioactive tank waste being shipped off the nuclear reservation for treatment and disposal.
The blue drum holds the first Hanford radioactive tank waste being shipped off the nuclear reservation for treatment and disposal.

For the first time, Hanford radioactive tank waste has been sent off site for treatment and disposal.

Whether it could lead to a potentially faster and less-expensive way of handling some of Hanford’s 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks is yet to be determined.

A mere three gallons of the waste held in Hanford’s tanks has been sent to nearby Perma-Fix Environmental Solutions in Richland to be encapsulated in concrete-like grout.

It then is expected to be sent to a privately owned Texas waste disposal facility that was built to accept low level radioactive waste, including waste mixed with hazardous chemicals, from federal projects.

In September the Energy Communities Alliance, a nationwide coalition of local governments affected by Department of Energy projects, called for a new approach to nuclear waste management as costs for cleanup of Hanford and other sites stands at $257 billion.

The alliance, which includes Hanford-area local governments, advocated for DOE to take actions, including moving ahead on pilot projects, that it said could conservatively cut $40 billion from environmental cleanup costs.

One pilot project would demonstrate the feasibility of grouting Hanford tank waste and disposing of it off Hanford, with the initial step calling for grouting three gallons of low activity radioactive waste.

But the effort, called the test bed initiative, then had a hold placed on shipping the three gallons for treatment and disposal, the report said. By some reports the treatment of the three gallons had been on hold for about a year until this fall.

“Continued progress on the TBI (test bed initiative) is important to lay the foundation for future DOE decisions regarding the potential for treating, stabilizing and disposing of Hanford LAW (low activity waste) in a form other than glass,” the alliance report said.

“If the test proves successful,” the report continued, “the concept could allow tank closures at Hanford to be dramatically accelerated, reducing cleanup costs by billions of dollars and resulting in decades of schedule improvement.”

Much of the Hanford waste left from processing irradiated uranium fuel to produce plutonium is stored in underground, leak-prone tanks, with the oldest dating to World War II. The plutonium was produced for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Construction started on the Hanford vitrification plant in 2002 to incorporate low activity and high level radioactive tank waste into glass for disposal at Hanford.

DOE is working to finish the construction and then commissioning of the parts of the plant to start vitrifying some of the low activity radioactive tank waste as soon as 2022, with full operations of the plant not required under a federal court order until 2036.

But the plant was not planned to be large enough to treat all of the low activity radioactive waste at Hanford in a reasonable time. At least 90 percent of the 56 million gallons of waste are expected to be low activity waste.

DOE said in a statement regarding the off site treatment of the three gallons of tank waste that it is “evaluating ways to perform tank waste cleanup activities in a safe, more efficient and more cost effective manner.” But the focus remains on starting up the vitrification plant for treatment of low activity radioactive waste, it said.

The study with the three gallons of waste “does not impact or imply a change to DOE’s initial planned treatment option to vitrify low activity waste,” workers at the Hanford tank farms were told in a Washington River Protection Solutions newsletter.

The grouting of waste also could be considered for treating some of the secondary waste during vitrification, such as waste collected in the plant’s off-gas system.

The Washington State Department of Ecology, which regulates Hanford tank waste, was involved in the planning for the treatment and disposal of the three gallons, said spokesman Randy Bradbury. It supports the tests as a demonstration of concept and will be reviewing the results.

It also has been in contact with the state of Texas to ensure that its rules comport with Washington state rules as the grouted waste is sent to the Waste Control Specialists Federal Waste Disposal Facility in Andrews, Texas.

“However, we still expect all Hanford tank waste to be turned into glass at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant,” or vitrification plant, Bradbury said.

The Department of Ecology has long said that it requires a tank waste form that is “as good as glass.”

The Energy Communities Alliance said a three-phase effort is planned to demonstrate the commercial treatment and off-site disposal of Hanford tank waste.

After a three-gallon test, 2,000 gallons and then 100,000 gallons or more would be treated to demonstrate the technology for waste treatment, the alliance said. The tests also would identify needed regulatory analysis and approvals, commercial capabilities and the ability to safely transport and dispose of stabilized tank waste off site.

Workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation prepare rigging in the vitrification plant’s Low-Activity Waste Facility. The facility could start treatint low activity radioactive waste in 2022. Courtesy Bechtel national

“We would have additional questions that have to be answered before we would allow any more tank waste to be shipped to Perma-Fix,” Bradbury said. Further action likely would trigger a change to Perma-Fix’s state permit, which would require public input.

The first two phases of the test bed would cost less than $15 million, with the third-phase price tag depending on how much waste is treated, according to the community alliance report.

“If successful, the return on the TBI (test bed initiative) investment is extraordinarily high for DOE,” the alliance report said.

The Government Accountability Office released a report in May saying that grouting waste would be much less expensive than glassifying it at the vitrification plant.

It recommended that DOE look at alternative treatment methods as it considers options to treat low activity waste that may not be sent through the vitrification plant unless the plant is expanded. The plant at its current design is expected to cost around $17 billion to construct and commission, although an up-to-date cost analysis has not been released by DOE.

The GAO report considered the success that the Savannah River, S.C., DOE site has had in grouting, rather than glassifying, its low-activity tank waste.

Waste Control Specialists, which would profit if Hanford tank waste were to be sent there, has estimated that sending grouted waste to Texas for disposal would cost up to $16.5 billion less than expanding the currently planned Hanford vitrification facilities, according to the GAO.

However, a 2003 study by a DOE contractor looking at different treatment approaches for some of Hanford’s low activity waste found that grouting would be the least expensive way to treat waste, but that transportation to disposal sites could push costs above other alternatives.

DOE has already constructed a lined landfill in central Hanford, the Integrated Disposal Facility, for disposal of vitrified low activity radioactive waste. Because of the slow flow of the groundwater beneath Hanford, the Department of Ecology has said that only the most robust waste forms are acceptable for disposal of low activity tank waste on site.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews