The cesium and strontium capsules stored at Hanford might be disposed of sooner if a demonstration project proposed for deep borehole disposal of radioactive waste is successful.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz discussed that possibility Wednesday at a House Science, Space and Technology committee hearing under questioning from Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
Hanford has 1,936 capsules filled with strontium and cesium removed from the high-level waste tanks at Hanford in 1972 to reduce the temperature of the waste inside those tanks.
The capsules, which contain about a third of the total radioactivity at Hanford, are stored in an underwater pool in central part of the reservation. They had been planned to be sent to a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., before the Obama administration stopped work on that facility.
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Now a permanent federal repository for high-level waste is not expected to be available before 2048, but some DOE officials have proposed options that could dispose of some waste sooner.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which looked at alternatives other than Yucca Mountain, recommended the Department of Energy review the nation’s policy to dispose of several types of waste together. Yucca Mountain was to hold used commercial and weapons nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive defense waste, including Hanford waste.
A DOE assessment of disposal options in response to the recommendation proposed considering deep boreholes for small packages of nuclear waste, such as Hanford’s cesium and strontium capsules.
They “could be very well suited perhaps for much earlier disposal through a borehole approach,” Moniz said. “We have to drill — we have to do the demonstration project, do the science, which is what we want to do in 2016.”
Budget proposal documents show $2 million for technology development to support plans in fiscal 2016 for what is anticipated to be a multi-year test using a non-radioactive waste substitute. DOE has sought communities interested in being the site for the borehole test.
The Hanford cesium and strontium capsules have a total volume of less that 140 cubic feet, compared with the 500,000 cubic feet of high-level waste projected after other tank waste is glassified at the Hanford vitrification plant under construction, according to an October DOE report on disposal options.
“The deep borehole disposal concept has been investigated intermittently for decades, but the concept has not been demonstrated through field testing,” the report said. The testing would confirm safety and feasibility.
Challenges exist in the development of remote handling equipment for placing waste in the borehole, although such equipment is in the realm of current technology, the report said.
The test would demonstrate technology for sealing the borehole, tools to characterize waste in the borehole and controls on waste isolation.
The report considered a borehole 3.1 miles deep, with the lowest portion in crystalline rock. It would need a diameter of at least 17 inches at the bottom for placing containers with a maximum diameter of 12 inches. The design was chosen because it could be reliably achieved with available commercial drilling technology.
The borehole, lined with steel casing, would hold waste in its lower 1.2 miles, with the crystalline rocks helping isolate it from the environment, according to the report.
Newhouse also asked Moniz about the administration’s proposed fiscal 2016 cut of almost $100 million to the budget of the Hanford Richland Operations Office. The office is responsible for cleanup of groundwater, along the Columbia River and in central Hanford, other than tank waste.
The proposed budget cites technical reasons for delays near the river, including the highly radioactive spill under the 324 Building just north of Richland and the high hazard 618-10 Burial Ground, Newhouse said.
“Is the Department of Energy committed to continuing this work in fiscal year 2015 with funding appropriated for this purpose and in fiscal year 2016 in order to meet existing legal milestones along the river corridor?” Newhouse asked.
Moniz did not address the question directly.
Instead, he pointed out that the administration’s budget request to Congress included a total increase of about $100 million because of more money proposed for the Hanford Office of River Protection. It is responsible for underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste, which is left from the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
The additional money will help the vitrification plant start treating low-level radioactive waste in 2021 or 2022, Moniz said.
Substantial progress has been made on cleaning up land on the river and the Plutonium Finishing Plant, he said. The proposed budget would allow continued aggressive work to clean contaminated groundwater, he said.
“Overall the site will have an increased budget, and I think we’ll make very, very credible progress in both parts of the program,” he said.
Newhouse also prepared testimony for the House Budget Committee, which heard comments from congressional members Wednesday.
He planned to ask for the committee’s help in making sure DOE is able to meet its legal cleanup requirements, build on success in environmental cleanup and avoid delays that increase costs to taxpayers for cleaning up waste from nuclear defense programs at Hanford and elsewhere.
In recent years there have been massive expansions of the federal government, “yet budgets for cleaning up these defense wastes have slowly dwindled by almost a billion dollars,” he said, according to his prepared remarks.