Potentially cheaper, faster Hanford radioactive waste treatment to be tested

The Test Bed Initiative demonstration project is proposed to show whether some radioactive waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks, such as at the tank farm shown here, could be grouted and shipped to a Texas repository for disposal.
The Test Bed Initiative demonstration project is proposed to show whether some radioactive waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks, such as at the tank farm shown here, could be grouted and shipped to a Texas repository for disposal. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Department of Energy has awarded a $4.8 million contract to test a new and potentially less costly way to treat Hanford’s radioactive waste held in underground storage tanks.

“We believe this is good news and a positive step forward,” said David Reeploeg, Tri-City Development Council vice president for federal programs. “We’ve been supportive of the Test Bed Initiative.”

The contract, awarded to joint-venture company Aerostar Perma-Fix TRU Services, would cover the second phase of the initiative, treating 2,000 gallons of the Hanford nuclear reservation’s waste in underground tanks.

The demonstration project would mix it with concrete-like grout and then ship it to Waste Control Specialists in Texas for disposal.

“It is a team effort between DOE and local small businesses to find a solution to some tank waste treatment,” said Richard Grondin, general manager of Perma-Fix Northwest just of the Hanford site in north Richland.

It would be a partial alternative for some waste now planned to be glassified at the $17 billion Hanford vitrification plant under construction.

Contract includes Tri-City work

In 2017 the first phase of the demonstration project was completed.

Three gallons of the 56 million gallons of waste in Hanford’s underground storage tanks were treated at Perma-Fix Northwest and then sent to Waste Control Specialists’ repository in Texas, which has an underground waste disposal cell for government low-level radioactive waste.

The next phase of the demonstration project expands the amount of waste treated and also requires a method to get 2,000 gallons of waste out of an underground storage tank and pretreat it to meet low-level radioactive waste standards.

Aerostar will perform contract management and Perma-Fix will treat the waste at its plant in north Richland just off the Hanford nuclear reservation, if Perma-Fix can resolve permitting issues with the Washington state Department of Ecology. Aerostar Perma-Fix TRU Services is based in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

DOE and Ecology remain in talks over a state permit to allow the project, including whether to allow the waste to be treated at the Perma-Fix plant in Richland.

If the Richland plant cannot get state approval for the project, the 2,000 gallons of low-activity tank waste might be shipped for grouting at another Perma-Fix facility out of state.

The project also includes work for Columbia Energy and Environmental Services in Richland. It would design, fabricate and install equipment for the project.

The Test Bed Initiative has faced some controversy because its critics are concerned that the new proposal could draw the focus from starting to treat tank waste at the Hanford vitrification plant no later than 2023.

Congress, state have questions

The U.S. Senate included language in a Senate fiscal 2019 DOE spending bill recommending no Hanford budget be spent on the initiative.

However, DOE plans to move forward on the initiative — pending reaching agreement with the Department of Ecology — with technology development funds from its national cleanup budget.

The Department of Ecology, the regulator for Hanford tank waste, said it is open to discussing the Test Bed Initiative as long as the demonstration project does not conflict with or inhibit plans to start treating low activity tank waste at the Hanford vitrification plant by 2023.

Now Ecology officials are waiting to see a report that was due to Congress from DOE in November 2018 to give the full details about the initiative. The report has been delayed, but Ecology expects it to be done soon.

The second phase of the project could be finished in September 2019, according to DOE. The contract announced Monday is for 10 months of work.

Courtesy Department of Energy

DOE has yet to decide how it will supplement the treatment capabilities of the vitrification plant for low activity radioactive waste..

The plant was not planned to be large enough to treat all 56 million gallons of tank waste in a reasonable amount of time. The plant could be expanded, but DOE also has looked at different supplemental treatment methods over the past two decades.

The vitrification plant will treat high level and low activity waste streams separately, with more capacity needed for the low activity waste treatment.

High level vitrified waste must be sent to a national repository for disposal, and the state will allow low-activity radioactive waste to be buried in a Hanford landfill if it is vitrified.

However, Hanford does not have a disposal facility permitted for tank waste that is grouted.

Benefits of initiative

If the Test Bed Initiative is successful, it could speed up Hanford environmental cleanup by allowing some of it to be grouted and shipped out of state for disposal as work to glassify waste continues at the vitrification plant.

A Government Accountability Office report released in May 2017 said that Waste Control Specialists, which would profit from the waste grouting initiative, has said that grouting waste could cost up to $16.5 billion less than expanding the vitrification plant to treat all of the tank waste.

DOE also has said that the initiative has the potential for significant cost savings.

In addition, it could free up space in double-shell tanks, DOE has said in support of the initiative.

The waste in 149 leak-prone, single shell tanks are being emptied into 27 double-shell tanks, which are nearing capacity, until the waste can be treated for disposal.

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. It was the first phase of the Test Bed Initiative. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The initial phase of the initiative treated so little waste that a three-gallon low activity waste stream could be separated from tank waste at the Hanford 222-S Laboratory.

For the second phase, liquid waste will be extracted from a double-shell tank that is running short of storage space.

Within the pipe coming from the tank to the ground’s surface, called a riser, a system will be inserted to remove high level waste constituents from the liquid.

Liquid waste is mostly low activity waste but also can include cesium, which must be treated as high level waste. The cesium would be removed from the extracted waste with an ion-exchange system within the riser, according to DOE plans.

The waste would then be double checked to make sure it qualifies as low activity waste before it is grouted and then sent to Texas for disposal.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.