The US still doesn’t know how and where to dump its growing mountains of nuclear waste
EM could save billions of dollars, for example, if Hanford, which classifies all of its waste as “high grade,” re-classifies some of the material as “low grade” when it is not highly radioactive, the GAO report suggests. In these cases, DoE could simply seal the tanks with mortar; a mixture of water, cement and sand. (It’s not clear if this is legal, although tests have shown it works. EM stopped building a waste pre-treatment facility in Hanford in 2012 due to technical challenges. The facility would have sorted out high and low hazardous waste.) GAO did suggested that Congress consider clarifying the law, but Congress has yet to act.
“There are 177 underground tanks that need treatment at Hanford,” says Anderson. “Congress needs to give the DoE the flexibility to make decisions based on science, not sources.”
Similarly, GAO found that EM did not budget for space in its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and cannot even say whether the facility will continue to operate as planned. The Carlsbad plant is the only deep geological space in the country that has a license to store contaminated clothing, tools, etc. and the most highly radioactive waste such as plutonium for 10,000 years.
The facility should no longer hold material in 2024, but DoE plans to expand and fill it by 2050 and maybe even longer. However, GAO says the expansion work “may not be able to complete before the existing space is full”. The construction of additional warehouses at the facility was hindered by a contractor who lacked adequate technical expertise and lack of staff. Accidents in 2014, including an underground fire that contaminated a tunnel with radiation, restricted the facility’s operation.
DoE is now reaching a legal limit on the amount of waste it can store in the room, so they recently changed their counting method to exclude the space between the storage drums as storage space. New Mexico regulators have approved the change, but the matter is still being challenged in court.
“You knocked out a third with a light hand. That will give them a lot more waste, ”complains Scott Kovac, Operations & Research Director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico (NWNM), a local anti-nuclear group.
The New Mexico Department of the Environment is now examining the DoE’s request to add two new storage panels to the existing storage space. “If the two new plates were included in the permit, the amendment shows that the total WIPP capacity would be more than 6.7 cubic feet of waste, even though the legal limit is 6.2 million cubic feet,” says Kovac.
NWNM, the Stop Forever WIPP Coalition, and other environmental and activist groups await several decisions from courts and state governments about the future of the site. Kovac says DoE needs to find a new repository but doesn’t know of a good site. “We’re trying to stop New Mexico from being the US dump.”
(The Defense Bill recently passed by Congress provides $ 80 million to address ventilation issues on the WIPP.)
But building new storage facilities, be it for waste from nuclear weapons manufacturing or power generation, is a sensitive issue.
Back in the 1980s, the DoE and Congress had approved the construction of another permanent, deep underground landfill at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada to store commercial spent nuclear fuel – used fuel from nuclear reactors. But after decades of fierce opposition from the state and indigenous tribes of Nevada to the project, Congress put funding responsibility in 2011, but the DoE is nearly a quarter of a century behind in accepting waste from commercial reactors.
Earlier this year, as a preliminary measure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted two companies – Holtec International and Interim Storage Partners – licenses to build spent fuel storage sites in New Mexico and Texas, respectively, for the temporary storage of waste from nuclear power plants in the United States. Both projects are being challenged in court by the federal states and environmental associations, who, among other things, fear that these temporary facilities, whose license has a validity period of 40 years, could be permanently proposed on Yucca Mountain due to the lack of an additional permanent waste storage facility such as this one.
A separate GAO report released in September urged Congress “to take steps to break the impasse on a permanent solution to commercially spent nuclear fuel.” According to this report, by 2019, about 86,000 tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel were stored on site in 75 operating or decommissioned nuclear power plants in 33 states, and the amount of spent fuel increased by about 2,000 tons annually. .
GAO is now focusing its investigations from departmental management on certain problematic projects, says Anderson, such as certain entities of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the DoE agency responsible for the military application of nuclear science, more likely than some other sites for the EM used its limited resources.
Last year, GAO accused EM of failing to develop a strategy to dispose of certain wastes from Idaho National Laboratory, the country’s location for nuclear energy research and development. The DoE’s own 2020 report said it could save between $ 12 billion and $ 15 billion by sealing some of the low level waste at the Idaho National Laboratory, saving transportation and deep storage costs.
A Senate Armed Forces Committee report earlier this year found that “while the United States continues to maintain and modernize its nuclear weapons stocks, it continues to generate waste that needs to be treated, stored and disposed of. … It is not clear whether there are enough facilities to dispose of the waste generated by these activities or whether such facilities are included in the current plans and budgets. “
In a statement emailed to the Journal, EM said it was “committed to continuous improvements in contract and project management and to reducing the DoE’s environmental commitments.” It added that GAO “recognized the remarkable steps EM has taken to demonstrate its commitment to improving its contract and project management” in cleaning up some troubled locations, such as East Tennessee Technology Park at Oak Ridge and the Salt Waste Processing Facility in Savannah River, South Carolina.