|Journal photo by Bill
A pair of storage units for calcined solids at
Purging nuclear waste
Price tag expected to be in the billions of
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
At the fiscal year 2000 funding level, a billion dollars
would pay for city of Pocatello operations for 18.5 years.
1998-99 figures, it would fund School District 25 operations for more than
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Kathleen Trever, coordinator of the state's INEEL Oversight
Committee, says pipes carrying radioactive waste in and out of the tanks
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.
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
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.
covers science and the environment for the Journal. She can be reached at
239-3168 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.