Journal photo by Bill Schaefer
A pair of storage units for calcined solids at INEEL.

Purging nuclear waste

Price tag expected to be in the billions of dollars

By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer
POCATELLO - No one's sure what the price tag will be to rid Idaho of nuclear waste now stored at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. But it's bound to cost billions of dollars .
Add some perspective by comparing what a billion dollars would do for some local government operations:
At the fiscal year 2000 funding level, a billion dollars would pay for city of Pocatello operations for 18.5 years.
Using fiscal 1998-99 figures, it would fund School District 25 operations for more than 16 years.
It would be enough to fund operations for the state of Idaho for well over half a year, based on the state's fiscal 2001 budget package.
As stunning as the numbers may seem, officials say the billions of dollars to be provided by the federal government is not too much to pay to rid Idaho of one of its greatest environmental liabilities: 1.4 million gallons of liquid waste now stored in a tank farm located in INEEL's 890-square-mile desert enclave north of Pocatello.
"This is going to be the most expensive project at INEEL for a long, long time," says Brad Bugger, a Department of Energy spokesman working in Idaho Falls. He says any manner in which DOE opts to carry out the cleanup will carry a price tag in the billions of dollars.
The driving force for the work is a 182-page document, the High-Level Waste and Disposition Environmental Impact Statement, which outlines nine ways under five categories for INEEL to treat the waste. The public has through April 19 to analyze and comment on the document prepared by federal officials.
The magnitude of the project is great not only in terms of dollars, but in complexity and history.
From 1953 to 1992, spent nuclear fuel from U.S. Navy ships and submarines was reprocessed at INEEL.
That reprocessing yielded acidic, radioactive liquid waste that has been treated with a calciner - a system which uses heat and chemicals to reduce the volume and stabilize the liquid waste into a solid, granular form. That treated waste is currently stored in bins at the INEEL. The other 1.4 million gallons of liquid waste has a higher sodium content, which means it couldn't be treated with the same calciner system. It remains in an INEEL tank farm.
Officials are confident that the present storage system - tanks of stainless steel and concrete - is safe. Alarms will sound if there is a leak, and a spare tank stands ready for a transfer, if needed.
Still, the tanks are located above the Snake River aquifer, Bugger says, and that makes dealing with them an urgent issue.
The aquifer provides clean drinking and irrigation water for several Snake River Plain communities, meaning its contamination could have widespread effects on the region.
Bugger says INEEL asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a review of its facilities, and getting that waste out of the tanks was one of three top priorities.
Kathleen Trever, coordinator of the state's INEEL Oversight Committee, says pipes carrying radioactive waste in and out of the tanks have leaked.
Current studies are being conducted on the extent of breaching. Numerous wells on and around the INEEL are monitored by the state oversight committee, Bechtel BWXT Idaho - the company contracted to manage INEEL for the DOE, and the U.S. Geologic Survey. So far, officials say, plumes of contamination are confined to INEEL property.
Trever says it takes 200 to 300 years for groundwater to travel from INEEL to where it emerges near Twin Falls in the Magic Valley area. Some radioactive pollutants will have lost their activity by then and won't be dangerous, but a key question is how radionuclides behave, Trever says. It is unclear whether long-lived radioactive waste will move with the water or sink, and remain stationary. In the meantime, public meetings about the proposals for waste treatment covered in the environmental impact statement, were conducted throughout much of Idaho and in Jackson, Wyo. One more public meeting will begin with an open house at 5 p.m. March 2 at the Fort Hall Business Council chambers.
The DOE found that for nine of 14 impact areas (including human health, the environment and worker safety), little or no impact would result from implementing any of the waste processes or disposing of the tanks.
In the areas of traffic and transportation, air emissions, health and safety, waste and materials, small impacts could result from one or more of the alternatives.
Officials say that some proposed alternatives - such as a treatment option that would solidify the waste into a glass form - lack sufficient research to indicate their effectiveness and feasibility.
"The maturity of the different technologies varies," says Bugger. "That's an issue. It's an area of uncertainty. "
Neither the State of Idaho nor DOE has a preferred alternative at this time.
Anne Minard covers science and the environment for the Journal. She can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at aminard@journalnet.com.

     


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