The state of Washington is asking for public input as it prepares to take a fresh look at the environmental impacts of a company that accepts, packages and treats radioactive waste in north Richland.
It plans a meeting Wednesday evening in Richland to explain the planned study, called an environmental impact statement, and what it might cover related to Perma-Fix Northwest at 2025 Battelle Blvd.
Currently, the Department of Ecology is asking the public to weigh in on what it wants included in the review.
Topics could include waste transported through Washington from other countries, such as Canada and Mexico, for treatment and a proposal to prepare some Hanford nuclear reservation waste for disposal by mixing it with concrete-like grout rather than turning it into a glass form at Hanford.
It’s also a step toward updating the company’s permit to treat hazardous waste, which is a decade overdue for renewal.
Permit renewal in dispute
Since the city of Richland did a similar environmental study in 1998, much has changed, said John Price, the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Tri-Party Agreement section manager.
North Richland is more developed now, with new buildings at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, new businesses and new apartments and townhouses in the area.
The work done at Perma-Fix Northwest also has changed in 21 years.
The findings of the 1998 study were used by the Department of Ecology to issue a Dangerous Waste Regulations permit, as required by state law for Perma-Fix operations, in 1999.
The permit was good for 10 years, and Perma-Fix filed an application for renewal in 2009.
But a decade later it is still working to submit a permit application that the state believes meets its requirements.
The initial application and revised applications submitted in 2011 and 2015 were found by the state to be deficient.
Department of Ecology staff held workshops with Perma-Fix staff as frequently as every week from 2015 to 2018 to help them work through the permit application process, Price said.
The meetings resulted in the most recent revision, which was submitted to Ecology in February and is still being evaluated.
Based on the new environmental study, a decision will be made on what the permit will cover.
Ecology could decide that some Perma-Fix activities would have too much environmental impact and could change conditions in the company’s permit.
Perma-Fix Richland work changed
When the last environmental study was done in 1998, Perma-Fix said just 20 percent of its business could come from the Department of Energy.
Now the majority of its business comes from the Hanford nuclear reservation and other DOE sites, Price said.
Perma-Fix did not anticipate handling any transuranic waste — waste with sufficient quantities of radionuclides such as plutonium that triggers a requirement to be disposed of at the nation’s transuranic repository in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Now Perma-Fix receives Hanford transuranic waste to compact and pack it for return to Hanford until the New Mexico repository is ready to take it.
The 1998 study also did not consider that Perma-Fix would be receiving international waste, including from Canada and the United Kingdom that would be shipped to and from the plant on Washington roads.
Perma-Fix currently is working on getting a federal permit related to waste from a nuclear reactor in Mexico that could be sent to Perma-Fix and then returned to Mexico.
Perma-Fix’s current work includes stabilizing waste in concrete-like grout, cutting waste into smaller pieces, compacting waste, sorting waste, and work with transuranic waste that includes verifying it as transuranic waste.
The environmental study the Department of Ecology is preparing to conduct now will cover the environmental impacts both of the current operations at the Perma-Fix plant in Richland and also consider activities the company proposes in the next decade.
More information needed on Hanford waste
Ecology officials have told the Department of Energy and Perma-Fix it will include plans for a demonstration project on treating some Hanford waste from underground tanks in the environmental study only if DOE and Perma-Fix can cooperate and provide a detailed proposal to the state.
Perma-Fix has provided information on the project, called the Test Bed Initiative, and is working on providing even more, said Richard Grondin, general manager of Perma-Fix Northwest.
The Test Bed Initiative is investigating whether some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in Hanford’s underground tanks could be mixed with concrete-like grout to stabilize it. It would then be sent to the Waste Control Specialists’ repository in Texas for disposal.
Now plans call for glassifying tank waste at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction at Hanford and disposing of vitrified waste with the characteristics of low level radioactive waste in a burial ground at Hanford.
DOE has a federal-court ordered deadline to start treating low-activity radioactive waste at the vitrification plant by 2023.
Eventually the plant could be expanded, since it was not planned to be large enough to treat all the low-activity waste held in Hanford tanks in addition to the tanks’ high level radioactive waste.
Supporters of the Test Bed Initiative say grouting the waste, which could be done at Perma-Fix, and then sending it to the Texas repository could be less expensive than vitrifying all the waste.
It also could speed up treatment, freeing up much needed space in Hanford’s newer double shell tanks to empty more of the site’s old single-shell tanks.
The double shell tanks store waste emptied from leak-prone single shell tanks until the waste can be treated.
The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program in World War II and the Cold War.
Permit does not cover test
Even though sending some Hanford waste just off site to Perma-Fix for grouting might be considered in the state’s environmental study, Ecology officials do not plan to consider the Test Bed Initiative grouting that could be done at Perma-Fix in the permit renewal.
First, Perma-Fix must get the permit that was set to expire 10 years ago renewed before the state will consider a proposal to add new processes and wastes, such as grouting tank waste, Price said.
Perma-Fix disagrees that the permit up for renewal does not allow it to grout tank waste, because the permit covers low level radioactive waste mixed with hazardous chemicals.
But it will abide by the decision of the Department of Ecology, Grondin said.
Perma-Fix previously was allowed to grout just three gallons of tank waste as part of an initial treatability test, which was not required to be covered by its Dangerous Waste Regulations permit.
Pre-treating radioactive waste
The next phase of the Test Bed Initiative calls for removing 2,000 gallons of waste from a Hanford underground storage tank and pretreating it to meet low-level radioactive and is significant enough to require being covered by the permit.
The waste would be sent off site for grouting at a commercial plant such as Perma-Fix Northwest and then on to Texas for disposal — a project that DOE wants to have finished this year.
Because the schedule to renew Perma-Fix’s permit does not allow that, Perma-Fix has a couple of options.
It could try to get state officials to change their position and agree that its 1999 permit covers the grouting of the 2,000 gallons of waste.
Or the company could opt to ship the 2,000 gallons of waste across the nation to a Perma-Fix plant in Tennessee for grouting and then on to Texas.
Commenting on Perma-Fix study
The Department of Ecology is early in its environmental study process, with the meeting March 13 only to discuss what should be considered in the study.
Then a draft study would need to be done, put out for public comment and a final study issued.
Next, the state could move forward on a renewed permit, which the state wants to issue before considering a proposal to add Test Bed Initiative activities to it.
The meeting to consider what should be included in the new environmental study will be at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Richland Public Library.
Written comments will be accepted at the meeting and comments also may be submitted via the internet at bit.ly/PFNWcomments through March 25.