Nuclear Waste Newsletter Sept 2016 - Jan 2017
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.
Federal Lawsuit Against Department of Energy on Transport of Waste
Several environmental groups previously filed suit in Washington, D.C., federal court in September 2016, naming the Department of Energy as defendant and arguing that one of its proposed nuclear transport plans violates federal law. The proposed plan at issue is an unprecedented one, by which more than 6,000 gallons of liquid waste would be transported more than 1,100 miles from Ontario to South Carolina over the course of approximately 150 trips and several years. The radioactive waste consists of highly enriched uranyl nitrate liquid, or HEUNL, that comes from the Canadian production of medical radioisotopes. The suit’s complaint emphasizes the dangers of such waste and the potential for it to easily leak into local food chains during transport. According to the document, “shipping of high-level radioactive waste in liquid form over public roads has never occurred in the 75-year history of U.S. nuclear power, research, medical isotope production, and weapons program.” Additionally, the environmental groups contend, other alternatives exist, including solidifying and storing the material at Chalk River in Canada or blending down the mixture so that it instead contains low-enriched, non-weapons grade uranium. These groups maintain the DOE has violated federal law by: 1) not compiling an environmental impact statement on the proposed shipments; 2) circumventing the required public notification and comment process; and 3) failing to adequately consider alternatives. They seek both a temporary restraining order and preliminary and permanent injunctions against the transport. After the original suit was filed, other agencies were put on official notice of the alleged dangers of the transportation. Notably, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security are expected to receive written notice from Representative Brian Higgins about the plan’s possible use of the Peace Bridge, which could start as early as this month. As an update following the filing of the lawsuit, the Department of Energy has agreed to delay and withhold shipments until at least mid-February.
Borehole Testing and Nuclear Waste
The Department of Energy (DOE) will be conducting borehole testing in South Dakota but was sure to note that nuclear waste will not be stored at the selected location. The borehole project is expected to cost $36 million. RESPEC is one company out of four that has been selected and awarded a contract to conduct preliminary work. The contract for the project does not permit the storage, use, or disposal of waste, and the borehole must be sealed and the land restored following completion of the experimental project. DOE expects the special project to yield scientific information concerning the effect that drilling up to three miles into crystalline rock will have.
Southern California Push for Long-Term Storage Solution
On August 1, 2016, United States Representative Darrell Issa made a formal plea to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for a nationwide nuclear waste storage plan. Representative Issa’s comments focused on the need for the removal of nuclear waste from the San Onfre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS), which is located in his congressional district. SONGS is currently in the process of decommissioning, and within three years, the approximately 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel will not have a place for disposal unless the Department of Energy takes action. Representative Issa urged the federal government to develop and execute a national plan to store such waste. He cited Yucca Mountain’s lack of viability as an option, the designated waste site in Nevada, to accept the country’s thousands of pounds of radioactive waste as an example of inadequate government spending in the field. Representative Issa asked the DOE to take special note of the opinions and recommendations of Southern California residents and streamline the designation process for disposal facilities.
Court Orders Nuclear Waste Document Production
United States District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill has ordered the Department of Energy to produce documents involving nuclear waste shipments in eastern Idaho. The order arises from a suit filed by Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus last September. Governor Andrus originally sought information on shipments of spent nuclear fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory that required a waiver of the 1995 nuclear waste agreement between Idaho and the DOE. DOE officials responded to Governor Andrus’ Freedom of Information Act request with heavily redacted papers, resulting in his filing of the suit at issue. The DOE maintains that the information cannot be made public because it involves internal communications exempt from FOIA, including documents falling under the work-product privilege and attorney-client privilege. Judge Winmill ordered that the DOE produce the documents so that he could determine whether to make them public. It does not appear that Judge Winmill has rendered a decision on whether to make the documents public.
Replicated Tests to Be Performed in Colorado
DOE has announced that engineers near Denver, Colorado, will begin testing a similar but small-scale version of a key component of the primary reaction vessel found in the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at Idaho National Laboratory. Given that DOE continues to fail compliance with Idaho’s 1995 agreement, it has been reported that Attorney General Wasden will not permit research quantities of spent nuclear fuel to enter the state for testing at the Idaho lab but that he does support the current plan for testing in Colorado. To date, simulated waste used in practice testing has been disrupted because a bark-like substance forms inside the cylinder. The testing planned in Colorado is intended to determine the ideal methodology to control particle size and other parameters that affect the bark formation, which disrupts the system.
Recommendation to Address Radioactive Waste
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board issued an opinion piece on the importance of addressing the storage of radioactive nuclear waste in Illinois towns, focusing particularly on Zion. It notes how the town has been affected and stigmatized as a nuclear waste dump. This stigma has caused the local economy to suffer because people do not buy homes, affecting local businesses and property values that negatively impact the tax base. The Board calls on the federal government to serve as the primary actor responsible for addressing the conditions that the Board says the government created and will revitalize—with clearance and redevelopment of the land where the Zion nuclear waste plant sits—the town by developing new land use thereby boosting its economy, and generating tax revenue. At present, the town has approximately 1,000 tons of hazardous nuclear fuel rods stored in canisters on Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
Debate Over West Lake Landfill Cleanup
The Environmental Protection Agency hosted a community <href="#stream/0">meeting in Bridgeton, Missouri, to discuss plans for removal of radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill Superfund site. The West Lake Landfill, which has been contaminated with byproducts of uranium enrichment since the Manhattan Project, was designated as an EPA Superfund site in 1990. After decades of investigation, the EPA released a report conducted by the National Remedy Review Board in June 2013 in which officials from the agency said that removal of the waste is feasible. The EPA noted that it would decide by December 2016 among four possible remedies: I) no action; II) capping the waste in place; III) partially removing; or IV) completely removing. The four possibilities were the focus of the meeting in Bridgeton, with many community members calling for full removal. When a vote was cast, many hands were raised for the full removal remedy, while no hands were raised in favor of partial removal. The EPA is still considering the viability of the various options and has extended its deadline to propose a plan concerning cleanup activities.
Fernald Preserve Celebrates 10th year Anniversary Following Remediation
The Department of Energy hosted an event capturing the 10th year anniversary surrounding completion of remediation at the Feed Materials Production Center in Fenald, OH. The facility processed uranium during the Cold War and operated from 1951 until 1989 but now is home to the Fernald Preserve and more than 1000 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat. A radio station in Ohio devoted a podcast for the anniversary event that the DOE had hosted and also discussed cleanup activities, remediation, and current state of the site. The article and podcast may be found <href="#stream/0">here.
Nuclear Energy Institute Urges Completion of Yucca Mountain Project
The United States Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a Washington, D.C., based organization representing the country’s commercial nuclear industry, recently commented on the Department of Energy’s newly proposed approach to nuclear waste disposal. Last year, the DOE opened for public comment a consent-based approach to nuclear storage through which states can choose to house such waste at designated in-state sites. The public comment period opened in December 2015 and ended July 31, 2016. In its responsive suggestions, the NEI focused on the need for the DOE to complete its Yucca Mountain project in Nevada rather than substitute those efforts with a new approach. Since 1987, Yucca Mountain has been named in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as the sole repository for the country’s spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste. The NEI expressed concern that new siting processes would be applied retroactively to projects already going forward, such as Yucca Mountain, and cautioned the DOE not to use money from the Nuclear Waste Fund for new siting activities not authorized by the NWPA. “If DOE does proceed with a consent-based siting approach, we emphasize that this would not, and legally cannot, substitute for compliance with the NWPA,” NEI Vice President and General Counsel Ellen Ginsberg wrote. The letter emphasized that the DOE “must follow current law, under which the proposed Yucca Mountain project remains the only . . . repository authorized to date.”
Reopening of Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
The Department of Energy has received substantial public reprimand for delay in reopening the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The WIPP, located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the only deep geologic repository for the disposal of U.S. defense-related nuclear waste. It has been closed since February 2014 following a truck fire and an unrelated radiological release. The closure derailed nuclear waste cleanup efforts at federal sites around the nation. Originally, federal officials promised the plant would be reopened by March 2016. However, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit released this month reported the DOE knew it had only a 1% chance of meeting this deadline. Local officials claim the DOE failed to follow best practices in selecting a new ventilation system for the site, contributing to the delay. According to the GAO, the delay of nine months will cost approximately $64.1 million.
The DOE announced it was 80% confident the plant would have reopened in December. Still, certain nuclear waste experts, including Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center, believe the full reopening could take a few more years and cost several more millions of dollars. At the end of August, WIPP workers underwent a new round of training to prepare for the handling of radioactive waste for the first time since the 2014 leak. Workers had to move simulated waste from a clean side to a contaminated side of the plant without spreading contamination. The facility then announced it would use the first weeks of September to correct any problems made apparent during the simulation. The DOE Operational Readiness Review Team provided an update in December 2016. The team concluded that WIPP can safely restart emplacement after the identified 21 pre-start findings and approval of corrective action plans are resolved. As of December 23, 2016, waste emplacement activities were approved to resume. The WIPP officially reopened as of January 4, 2017, when two pallets of drums were placed underground for the first time in three years. Although the WIPP reopened, Secretary Moniz has informed the public that major changes have been made to improve safety for staff and technological advances have helped to enhance public confidence in cleanup efforts. However, he noted that operations have resumed, but it will take a few years before WIPP is operating again at full speed.
West Valley Demonstration Project
The last 56 vertical storage casks at West Valley have been moved to an interim storage pad site. Each of these casks carried five 10-foot steel canisters of radioactive glass. The project was deemed a milestone because it was completed a year ahead of schedule after starting in 2015. The storage casks have a 50-year design life and have been placed on a specially designed concrete pad on-site. Next steps involve continuing decontamination efforts in the main processing building where the waste was stored. Debris resulting from the main building will be disposed of at an off-site licensed facility.
Extension of Savannah River Site Contract
On August 8, 2016, it was announced that the Department of Energy had extended its current management and operating contract at the Savannah River Site. The Savannah River Site, which is located near Aiken, South Carolina, maintains much of the United States’ residual nuclear weapons stockpile from the Cold War. The Site’s contract is currently being executed by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC (SRNS), a Flour-led partnership. Flour has served as a DOE contractor since the Manhattan Project and, over the years, it has supported nuclear waste cleanup, decontamination, and deactivation at various locations around the country, including the Idaho Site, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky, and the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Ohio. The DOE extended its contract with SRNS for an additional 22 months, through July 2018.
Waste Disposal at Oak Ridge
An Oak Ridge National Laboratory employee, who also serves as a local city council member, spoke to a group of constituents concerning the status of waste disposal and cleanup activities expected to occur in the future at the lab. In particular, she focused her attention and the discussion on the Environmental Management Disposal Facility and noted that costs associated with future cleanup work at this facility have been estimated to cost between $700 to $900 million.
Judicial Ruling on Safety Measures at Hanford
In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled on August 2, 2016, that the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor for the Hanford Site must implement immediate worker safety measures. The ruling comes after Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed an emergency legal motion on July 20, in which he sought to protect workers from continued exposure to toxic chemical vapors, including mercury, ammonia, dimethyl mercury, and other heavy metals. The Hanford Site along the Columbia River near Richland was where plutonium was produced to fuel the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Since then, it has continued to be a stockpile for nuclear material, and, today, 56 million gallons of liquid waste are stored below its surface. Since April 28, 2016, 60 workers at the site have alleged being exposed to chemical vapors, resulting in nose bleeds, dizziness, headaches, and breathing difficulties and prompting the Washington Attorney General’s suit. Judge Rice set October 12 as the date for oral arguments, but ordered certain measures be taken prior to the hearing, ranging from the mandatory use of oxygen tanks to the enforcement of a pilot monitoring program for toxic-free breathing air. As an update, since the DOE has taken preventative steps following the filing of the lawsuit and under an agreement between the parties, the court decided not to mandate particular safety measures by court order. The case remains scheduled for trial after the court rejected the DOE’s motion to dismiss the state’s suit.
Hanford Cleanup Costs
New estimates regarding costs to build a plant that processes highly radioactive waste by turning sludge into vitrified glass at Hanford have been released. DOE now estimates that costs to build the plant aimed at processing the sludge will cost an additional $4.5 billion, ultimately raising the project’s total costs to $16.8 billion and four times the original price tag set in 2000. The DOE intends to process 56 million gallons of sludge stored in leaking tanks, but continued delays have resulted for a variety of reasons, including errors, miscalculations, and wrongdoing. A technical review resulted in DOE ordering that 500 problems be fixed, some of which relate to fundamental deficiencies at a melter building. It has been noted that the increased costs resulted from the need for DOE to accelerate construction in order to meet court-imposed deadlines from the pending lawsuit filed in the District Court for Eastern Washington.
Meeting on Participation in Federal Consent-Based Program
Lawmakers and regulatory officials met in Wyoming to consider working with the Department of Energy on its new “consent-based” initiative to establish nuclear waste storage sites in states that volunteer to participate. The Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development committee scheduled a meeting to discuss the potential of participation at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission building in Casper. At the meeting, multiple groups, including the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, which represents two Native American tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation, voiced concern as to the unreliability of nuclear transportation and storage. Meanwhile, other officials, such as local Wyoming Representative Larsen and Senator Anderson, countered that extensive measures exist in the uranium extraction and nuclear energy industries about which much of the public is still unaware and which would allow for a safe operation.
Nuclear Waste Selection Controversy
Debate has recently sprung up around the ongoing Ontario Power Generation (OPG) project in Canada. Currently, an OPG is being built at Kincardine to house low and intermediate level nuclear waste. At the same time, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is considering multiple sites for a Deep Geological Repository (DGR), in which high level nuclear waste will be stored. Recently, John Mann, a citizen of Port Elgin, voiced concern as to why the site of a DGR could not accept low level and intermediate level waste as well as its intended high level waste. Mann pointed to the fact that all levels of nuclear waste are currently held together at Bruce Power as indication that such a possibility is feasible. The cost of nuclear storage at Bruce Power is an estimated $1 billion, and NWMO is planning to spend approximately $23 billion to store high level nuclear waste at its selected DGR site. Similar to the ongoing debate over the allocation of the Department of Energy’s nuclear waste spending in the United States, Mann deplored the Canadian capital required to create two new storage sites as an “obscene waste.”
Ontario Power Generation (OPG)
OPG has submitted further information of results from its studies regarding its proposal to build a deep geologic repository for low- to intermediate-level waste. The OPG studies concluded that removal of the repository to an alternative location would ultimately increase costs and cited the environmental effects than would occur if it were to remain at the currently designated location. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has been assisting the Canadian agency responsible for review of environmental assessments. This Commission has reviewed OPG’s additional information and is expected to complete its review and provide its assessment by January 16, 2017, concerning whether OPG’s reports are sufficient and consistent with ministerial requests.
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.