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The following is a compendium of news reports over the preceding month that may be of interest to our AG offices who are dealing with DOE sites or general nuclear waste issues. Neither the National Association of Attorneys General nor the National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute expresses a view as to the accuracy of news accounts, nor as to the position expounded by the authors of the hyperlinked articles.
DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (DOE)
The DOE Office of Environmental Management (EM) issued awards and touted the successes and closure of the $6 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Program, a program that focused on cleaning up waste following the Cold War. Initially in 2009, there were 931 square miles to clean, but today, there are less than 300 square miles remaining, following remediation and demolition efforts.
DOE issued a report following their investigators’ inquiry at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). DOE concluded that various problems existed at the WIPP (inadequate safety training and emergency planning and a failure to maintain equipment or fix identified problems) that led to two recent but separate incidents involving a fire and radiation leak, causing the site to close. DOE has also reported that it is ending construction at a plant at the Savannah River Site that was slated to handle excess plutonium.
In March 2014, DOE Office of EM submitted its proposal for its Division’s fiscal year 2015 budget, and a copy is available here where a summarized breakdown of the funds can be found on page four of the proposal. In its budget, EM seeks a total of $5.6 billion in funds, which include funding for both cleanup costs and the D&D fund deposit.
On March 27, 2014, the EM Acting Assistant Secretary David Huizenga provided a fiscal year 2015 budget summary for the Congressional Nuclear Cleanup Caucus to brief members of Congress and their staff.
Energy Northwest, a utility company, obtained a judgment for damages in the amount of $19.3 million, for costs associated with a breach of contract claim for DOE’s failure to accept spent nuclear fuel from the plant.
The DOE filed a petition, requesting that the D.C. Circuit review en banc its November decision that prohibited DOE from collecting fees from utility companies. Additionally, DOE Secretary Moniz submitted a letter to the Senate to reduce the fee to zero, as ordered by the Court. However, the D.C. Circuit denied DOE’s request. Secretary Moniz’s request to the Senate carries a 90-day congressional review period, and, if Congress fails to act, the request will take effect and the fee will be lowered to zero. The Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (Petitioner in Case) issued statements praising the Court’s decision to deny review.
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Four U.S. Senators, including three members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (Alaska Senator Murkowski, Idaho Senator Risch, and Wyoming Senator Barrasso), visited the Idaho National Laboratory. During the trip, the Senators commented on the importance of having viable options to handle nuclear waste storage, particularly given the current closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the inability to use Yucca Mountain.
Storage, Recycling, or Disposal of Radioactive & Hazardous Waste
In an interview with Time magazine, Arizona Senator John McCain remarked that he is still interested in and engaged in the issue of global warming but that he is disinclined to take up the issue currently or in the near future given the lack of movement or interest to seriously discuss nuclear power as a viable solution to global warming.
Although the issue is not a novel idea, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey recommended that nuclear waste be stored in shale rock but different from the shale rock used currently for hydraulic fracturing. Other scientists within the United States and abroad, particularly in European nations, have also noted that shale rock could safely store the waste because of its highly impermeable properties. The scientist and others highlighted that other European countries are developing repositories to store waste in shale rock formations. They also noted how important it is to store nuclear waste underground to lessen the risk of harm from natural or man-made disasters.
Researchers from Florida State University have conducted experiments and determined that the use of the element, californium, may be used to store waste and recycle it into fuel. The experiments demonstrated that the element attaches to waste while separating other materials and changing their structure. However, the exorbitant costs of the element may inhibit its practical use; just 5 mg of the element costs the research team $1.4 million to acquire.
UPDATES – WASTE SITES
WASTE ISOLATION PILOT PLANT (WIPP)
Contractors at the Hanford site notified officials that a visual inspection at a double-shell tank had the presence of an unidentified material, suggesting that another leak may have occurred outside a riser. Recently, in February 2013, the DOE confirmed that inaccurate reporting of leaks at Hanford occurred and that six out of 177 tanks were leaking.
A watchdog environmental group noted its disagreement with DOE’s decision to wait two additional years before taking action to empty a leaking storage tank, despite a requirement that materials be removed within 48 hours notice of a tank’s failure.
The DOE elected to close the Waste Sampling and Characterization Facility (facility) at Hanford to reduce costs; this facility is responsible for analytical services, but ,given improvements at offsite laboratories, DOE expects to save administrative costs associated with maintaining the facility. These savings could then be applied towards additional cleanup efforts.
A reservoir in Washington was dropped approximately 25 feet after a significant 65 foot crack was discovered along the Wanapum Dam (which is upstream from the Hanford site), raising the question about what would occur at Hanford should the dam fail altogether.
DOE Secretary Moniz, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and other Washington State officials were scheduled to meet in mid-March 2014, to discuss cleanup efforts and the consent decree in place for the Hanford Site. Following this meeting, the Governor stated that he was dissatisfied with the DOE’s response and plan to clean up the nuclear waste because it lacked the specificity that Washington officials requested of DOE for an extended period of time. Ultimately, Washington could file suit against DOE, but the Governor stated that other legal options are readily available to the State, including arbitration as a means to require that DOE produce a more complete plan; the Governor stated that he anticipates some movement in the next coming weeks. Although he appreciated the DOE visit to Washington to discuss continued cleanup at Hanford, Attorney General Bob Ferguson also expressed his dissatisfaction with DOE’s proposed plan and stated that his office will continue to review all options available to the State and his clients. The DOE proposed modifying the existing Hanford Tri-Party Agreement that continues to set milestones while simultaneously treating and immobilizing tanks, handling low-level and high-level waste, in addition to addressing technical challenges. According to DOE, the proposal also offers clear timeframes for setting other milestones after solving these technical problems. A copy of the DOE proposal may be found here. Subsequent to this meeting, Attorney General Ferguson and Governor Inslee revealed a proposal that sets new deadlines to address technical problems, in addition to waste treatment, environmental safety requirements, and reporting requirements.
SAVANNAH RIVER SITE (SRS)
The DOE announced that construction of a mixed oxide fuel plant at the SRS being constructed to convert plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors, will be halted. A pact between the United States and Russia to convert tons of plutonium has been affected as a result of the discontinued construction, requiring the two countries to have to resume a discussion on plans to proceed and comply with their agreement.
Despite not having a current specified location to send its transuranic waste due to the Waste Isolation Power Plant’s closure, the SRS continues to arrange for loads to be sent. DOE representatives have indicated that it believes SRS will be able to finish shipping the remaining batches.
Governor Bill Haslam from Tennessee visited the Oak Ridge site and met with management to discuss and see how the cleanup efforts are creating an environment that promotes economic development in the region, including private business and general industry.
Despite President Obama’s $3.9 trillion budget and the likelihood of revisions, it was noted that zero funds were included in his budget to make Yucca Mountain operational as a disposal site for storing spent nuclear fuel from around the nation.
Commissioners from Elko County voted in support of a resolution that would reinitiate conversations concerning Yucca Mountain generally but also would open discussions to reengage about the licensing process and study whether it is a viable option to store nuclear waste.
Pennsylvania – Armstrong County – Shallow Land Disposal Area
Although conversations are underway concerning entering into a memorandum of understanding among the DOE, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the remaining nuclear waste from the Apollo factory and Parks facility (that operated from the 1950’s until 1983) near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, nearby residents – many of whom know people or have relatives who died from cancer that they attribute to the radioactive waste – are concerned about potential health risks once digging begins. The residents want the waste removed but some are conflicted about what action should be taken to address it. A report recently issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Inspector General emphasized that it is unknown exactly what is buried at the site because of poor record keeping during the facilities’ operations, and these issues add complexity to cleanup efforts.
Outstanding questions remain on whether the United States and the Ukraine (along with other countries, including Syria and shipments at the south of Italy) have reached an agreement for Ukraine to accept nuclear waste from the U.S. Reportedly, the Ukrainian Party of Regions Deputy Oleg Tsarev stated that negotiations between the U.S. and the Ukraine began before the political state of affairs in his country.
Frank Greening, a former scientist with the Ontario Power Generation (the electric company seeking to store nuclear waste in a geologic repository that borders Huron County and which some commentators have alleged would also affect U.S. states), has drafted a letter that questions the calculations that the company has used in assessing the radioactivity level of the materials that would be stored at the site. This letter has caught the attention of U.S. state lawmakers and provided additional information that enhances their reservations for such a project.
A French nuclear waste agency is building a science laboratory to determine whether it could be the permanent site to hold radioactive waste using clay rocks, and if approved, the first amount of waste could be stored here in about 10 years. The article also mentions that no country has an operational and permanent underground repository and that plans to identify one are often met with local opposition, including in the United States; France is spending money to support local community projects and activities, as it attempts to get consent for the site that is located in an under-populated area.
Jeanette L. Manning
NAGTRI Program Counsel
National Association of Attorneys General
2030 M Street, N.W., 8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036