Nuclear Waste News August 2016
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.
Energy Frontier Research Centers Award
The Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $40 million in awards for four new Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs). The four centers will be led by Florida State University, Ohio State University, the University of South Carolina, and the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The EFRCs were selected based on a merit review process with awards ranging from $2 to $4 million per year for each center for up to four fiscal years. The EFRCs will conduct research aimed at accelerating the scientific breakthroughs needed to support the DOE’s nuclear waste cleanup mission. The goal of the grant is to develop safer and more efficient cleanup and storage technologies for hazardous nuclear weapons waste from World War II and the Cold War.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will lead one center called IDREAM with researches from Washington State University, University of Washington, George Institute of Technology, University of Notre Dame, City College of New York, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The team has expertise in chemistry, chemical engineering, materials science, microscopy, and computational modeling. One of its main sites of focus is the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, built during the 1950’s to refine nuclear deployment materials. Another is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, established as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943. Despite projected scientific advances, the team estimates it still may take up to 50 years to fully process the 300 million liters of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks at these sites.
Groundwater Testing in Parks Township
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are conducting groundwater testing in areas of Parks Township, the nuclear waste dump approximately 25 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. While such testing is routine in the vicinity of Parks Township, the Corps and the EPA continue to test for any possible migration of nuclear contaminants. The test results to detect any migration of nuclear contaminants will not be officially available until later in the year. However, an EPA spokeswoman has stated that the EPA tested wells outside the dump property and found nothing of concern.
WIPP Nuclear Waste Transportation Criteria
As of July 4, 2016, the DOE will be enforcing new criteria for shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad. WIPP is a geological repository for transuranic waste meant to hold the materials for 10,000 years until they have effectively decayed. The site was shut down in 2014 following two separate incidents: a radiological release and a salt truck fire. Because materials sent to the site typically consist of items such as gloves, tools, and other materials that become contaminated during the handling of spent nuclear fuel and plutonium, the new criteria will require the shipments to undergo safety inspections before being sent to WIPP. All containers not already interred at the site will have to go through a reevaluation process, but officials do not foresee the changes affecting the projected reopening of WIPP in December. The DOE partnered with the state of New Mexico to sign a five-year, $6.8 million cooperative agreement with the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department for the safe transportation of the radioactive waste.
WIPP Request for Permit Changes
New Mexico’s WIPP has requested that the state Environment Department approve changes to its existing permit. WIPP has spent the past two years trying to recover from its two 2014 incidents and hopes to reopen by the end of the year. WIPP seeks to have a requirement dropped from its hazardous waste facility permit mandating the ventilation in its waste disposal rooms. Currently, the permit requires the disposal rooms to have a ventilation rate of at least 35,000 cubic feet of air per minute when workers are present. Ventilation rates for the site have been a challenge in recent years, with current ventilation rates being a seventh of what they were before the 2014 incidents. WIPP is asking for the option to implement its own safety measures when ventilation rates fail. The comment period for the change ended on August 8, and a decision by the Environment Department is expected in September.
Lowered Deadline Standards at Los Alamos National Laboratory
A new consent order was finalized in June between the federal government and the New Mexico government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL is one of the largest scientific institutions in the world and was founded during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. For 11 years, the DOE and the New Mexico state Environment Department (NMED) set strict deadlines for the DOE’s cleanup of nuclear waste from LANL. Under the previous consent agreements, if the federal DOE missed a deadline, it could be sanctioned and penalized by the state. Under the new consent order, there are two types of deadlines: “targets” that do not have any mechanism for enforcement and “milestones” that are enforceable and can lead to sanctions. It also provides the DOE power to update LANL cleanup deadlines based on issues such as work progress, changed conditions, and fluctuating funding levels. The new order has drawn criticism from opponents who feel it gives the DOE too much power and authority over its own cleanup deadlines.
Dispute over Los Alamos National Laboratory Cleanup Costs
Officials from the DOE and NMED recently disagreed as to the estimated cost of cleaning up the Cold War-era nuclear weapons production waste at LANL. In March, NMED said the two decades of soil and water remediation and waste removal would likely cost at least $4 billion, approximately $225 million per year. However, the DOE’s Los Alamos Field Office announced in July that $2.9 billion through 2035, an average of $153 million per year, would suffice. State officials criticize this estimate because they believe that the DOE’s figure is too optimistic and its plans to “cap and cover” the toxic waste rather than move it to a secure facility—a process that could leave waste in the ground and threaten local water resources—is problematic.
Yucca Mountain Proposal
The House Environment and Economy Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill), hopes to unveil a legislative blueprint to advance nuclear fuel disposal, focusing on the Yucca Mountain waste repository site. Yucca Mountain was designated in 1987 as the sole site for a geological repository for high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. Nevada formally vetoed the designation in 2002, but Congress overrode the veto. However, in the face of continued opposition, federal funding for Yucca Mountain ended in 2011. The Subcommittee held a hearing in early July of this year to explore federal and local perspectives as well as the economic benefits of moving forward with the Yucca Mountain project.
Consent-Based Radioactive Storage Siting
This month, the DOE hosted a public meeting as part of an eight-city set of national meetings to gather input on how to deal with the country’s growing stockpile of nuclear waste. Because much of the country’s approximately 70,000 tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel continues to be stored at the reactor sites where it was generated, the DOE is attempting to find a more permanent storage solution. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 laid out a timeline for permanent underground disposal, which was meant to be implemented by the late 1990’s. Now, the DOE is developing a “consent-based siting process,” through which it hopes states will volunteer locally accepted storage locations. States that have indicated interest include Texas and New Mexico. The meeting in Boise focused on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) as a possible storage site. There has been marked public opposition because of the site’s proximity to the Snake River aquifer, a supplier of agricultural irrigation and water to thousands of Idahoans.
Proposed Waste Cleanup
The EPA presented a plan to clean up the hazardous waste at the Chemtronics site. This facility in Swannanoa produced explosives and chemical agents for the military, and hazardous chemicals were dumped at the site for over 20 years starting in the 1950’s. The EPA presented a proposed plan, which will have a 60-day comment period, for the cleanup of the site over the next few years.
Safety Details for Proposed Nuclear Waste Site
Waste Control Specialists (WCS) recently provided federal regulators with details about plans to store nuclear waste in Andrews County. In April, WCS, a Dallas-based company, submitted an application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) with plans to expand its existing low-level radioactive waste site. However, federal regulators declined to review the WCS’ license application due to a lack of sufficient technical information and safety-related details in the application. Now, WCS has responded with some of the requested information, specifically clarifying a key point of ambiguity: which nuclear materials the site would accept in the future. WCS explained that it is seeks to store high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel rods for at least 40 years. It is requesting initial approval to store up to 40,000 metric tons. The first phase, projected to last a decade or longer, would include storage of approximately 5,000 metric tons. WCS is scheduled to send further responses to the NRC over the next three months.
Oak Ridge Site Designations
The DOE recently held a public information session on a proposed plan to put another landfill on its Oak Ridge Reservation for low-level nuclear waste and hazardous materials. DOE officials say the new landfill is necessary for its cleanup of toxic nuclear legacy from the Manhattan Project. The cleanup work in Oak Ridge has been heretofore focused on the former K-25 site where uranium was once enriched. However, the new plan is centered on the task of ridding the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex, a nuclear weapons plant, of mercury and low-level radioactive debris. It is a projected 20-year chore, and 4 sites are currently under consideration out of 16 previously considered locations. All 4 options are in Bear Creek Valley and within a mile of Oak Ridge residents. DOE executives maintain the homes are separated from the sites by a prominent ridge that serves as a groundwater divide. Still, city officials and residents have voiced concerns about the plans, citing a study funded by the city that concluded the proposed sites are too close to homes and the area’s complex groundwater system. A final decision on the landfill location will be made next year, construction of the cells is scheduled for 2020-2022, and the work is targeted to begin in 2024.
Nuclear Waste Site Selection Process
Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has opened for public comment a draft of its plan for nuclear waste storage. The NWMO plans to spend approximately $23 billion to store high-level nuclear waste underground in a geological repository. The repository site has been narrowed down from a list of 21 possible sites to a list of 9. The draft is open for comment and referred to as the “Implementing Adaptive Phased Management 2017 to 2021 Draft,” which lays out a 5-year plan of work. Under the draft, NWMO will spend the next 5 years testing its radiation containment system, ensuring funds are available for the long-term waste management, and working with communities to find a safe and suitable location. Meanwhile, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is conducting hypothetical computer simulations on two unidentified sites as possible alternatives to another planned nuclear waste repository at the Bruce Power site. OPG has offered to complete the studies by the end of 2016. Like the DOE’s similar efforts in the United States, NWMO’s proposal has drawn questions from critics, namely as to the urgency for a repository and the need for two simultaneous locations. The draft remains open for comment through October 31, 2016. Accessing the draft and providing public comment may be found via the link provided here.
Jeanette Manning is the Editor of Nuclear Waste News and may be reached at 202-326-6258. Nuclear Waste News is a publication of the National Association of Attorneys General. Any use and/or copies of this newsletter in whole or part must include the customary bibliographic citation. NAAG retains copyright and all other intellectual property rights in the material presented in this publication. For content submissions or to contact the editor directly, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.