DOE explores methods to treat waste that could cut expenses

Cleanup of the nuclear waste-contaminated Hanford site will cost another $323.2 billion to $677 billion and continue until at least 2078, according to the latest projections released by the U.S. Department of Energy.

That’s why the Department of Energy is exploring new approaches that could reduce both the timeline and costs associated with the cleanup of the 586-square-mile site, said Geoff Tyree, external engagement lead with the Department of Energy at Hanford.

“We’re looking for ways that we can reduce the cost of cleanup while making sure we’re meeting the regulatory requirements and that it’s still safe and protective of people and the environment,” Tyree said.

The Department of Energy reported the projections in its 2019 Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report, a document released in February that serves as the foundation for preparing federal budget requests and informational briefings to affected tribal governments and Hanford stakeholders. The report is required annually under the Tri-Party Agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Costs associated with the nearly 30 years of cleanup that have taken place thus far totaled $53 billion as of September 2018. Work completed during that time included the movement of 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel from near the Columbia River to dry storage, stabilization of 20 tons of leftover plutonium that was shipped off site and treatment of 20 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater.

The footprint of active cleanup now stands at 76 square miles compared to 586 square miles in 1989.

The Department of Energy’s previous lifecycle report released in 2016 estimated the remaining cleanup cost at $107.7 billion and saw most of the work being done by 2060. The increased cost and delayed schedule included in the latest report were not unexpected, but they highlight the need to look at things differently, Tyree said.

“(The report) definitely shows that the current approach will leave waste in the tanks for too long, it will expose workers to unnecessary risk and require taxpayers to pay too much, and so the report supports the department’s exploration of other approaches to treating tank waste to complete the Hanford cleanup,” Tyree said.

One of the alternatives the Department of Energy is exploring is a process known as the test bed initiative, which looks to mix some of the less radioactive tank waste with a grout-like mixture for it to be disposed of as low-level waste outside of Washington.

The Department of Energy is also considering new ways for treating the more radioactive, high-level waste, Tyree said.

At the same time, Bechtel National Inc.’s construction of the vitrification plant remains on schedule to begin turning the 56 million gallons of high-level waste in Hanford’s 177 underground tanks into glass by 2023.

“I know the (Department of Energy) is looking at a number of different options, and I think all of those options, from my perspective, are worth a lot more examination and might be a really good direction to move in,” said David Reeploeg, vice president of federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council.

However, dealing with nuclear waste policy and disposal inherently holds a wealth of challenges, one of the most significant being securing the necessary funding for it, Reeploeg said.

Workers exit the C Tank Farm after operating equipment that cuts a larger hole in the top of an underground waste tank. The bigger hole allows more waste retrieval equipment to fit inside. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy)

The Department of Energy’s 2020 congressional budget proposal designates $2.1 billion toward the Hanford cleanup, an amount that is $417 million less than what was allotted for the cleanup in 2019.

“This is an era of limits on how much Congress is going to be able to afford to spend every year and how much work, realistically, can be accomplished every year,” Reeploeg said.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that the longer it takes to complete the cleanup, the more expensive it becomes to maintain the site for nuclear safety, said Alex Smith, program manager of the state Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program.

“We’re getting to a tipping point where just the costs to maintain the site are eventually going to eclipse the whole budget for the site,” Smith said.

The Department of Ecology supports the Department of Energy’s efforts to shorten the timeline and reduce the costs associated with the Hanford cleanup but also has concerns about new methods that may be used to do so, she said.

“Although we agree that it needs to be cleaned up—and the faster it’s cleaned up the better all-around—we’re worried that methods that aren’t as protective of health and the environment will be used in order to do it more quickly rather than to do it right,” said Randy Bradbury, communications manager for the Department of Ecology’s nuclear waste program.

The Department of Ecology is working with the Department of Energy to advance the test bed initiative, while at the same time closely monitoring that it doesn’t pull money or attention away from the central mission of vitrifying the high-level waste that it believes needs to be vitrified.

“To the extent we can do it without sacrificing environmental protection in our jurisdiction, we’re happy to support those efforts but not if they come at the expense of (DOE) meeting its obligations,” Smith said.

Completing the cleanup to a standard that all stakeholders are comfortable with but at a cost that is affordable for Congress and palatable to the community is a challenge that will require open minds on all sides, said TRIDEC’s Reeploeg.

“As a nation, we have this legal and moral obligation to clean up the Hanford site. That being said, we also recognize that we are in an era where there are limitations to funding. The budgetary environment is not one where there’s a whole lot of extra money lying around, so the lifecycle report certainly presents some new challenges,” Reeploeg said.

Another challenge will be getting all parties to reach agreement on the proper balance between quantity of work and standard of work, he said.

“Is it better to get a lot of work done to one standard — to at least get waste out of the tanks and get waste solidified — or to have a much higher standard but you only get a fraction of that waste solidified or pulled out of the tanks? I don’t know that anybody knows what the exact right answer to that is. None of these are easy answers, but I think those are some of the conversations that are beginning to take place and that we probably need more of,” Reeploeg said.

The Department of Energy is still early in its process of analyzing alternative waste-treatment options, so any potential new path and related cost reductions likely will not be reported for a couple of years, Tyree said.

“We’re not trying to rush this. We want to make sure we take the time to talk about these options and to be able to demonstrate that they will still be protective of people and of the environment,” he said.

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