The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Tuesday, August 01, 2000
Paducah, Kentucky

Nuclear waste work has hurdles

By Joe Walker
A controversial plan to dispose of about 14 billion pounds of mildly radioactive waste most of it at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant could face regulatory delays along with big funding questions.

The work, expected to produce 100 to 200 jobs, ranges in cost from $700 million to $2.5 billion to build and operate uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion facilities at Paducah and its sister plant near Portsmouth, Ohio. Along with significant funding concerns, the project faces nuclear-safety and environmental hurdles, according to a June report issued by the Department of Energy.

Assuming the waste cannot be commercially recycled, it will be sent to an approved disposal facility. The Nevada Test Site, a vast land area north of Las Vegas, is the preferred site with two low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities. There are "significant uncertainties regarding the time and cost" needed to make the material compliant with Nevada Test Site regulations, the report says.

Additional actions under the National Environmental Policy Act may be needed because disposal was not included in a record of decision issued last year, the report said. The record dealt with recycling the material.

"The additional NEPA actions are not expected to delay the request for proposal for the conversion of (the material)," the report said, adding that design and preliminary studies should not be affected.

But if changes are needed to the record of decision or a related environmental impact statement, they will delay start-up, the report said. Also, a site-specific environmental impact statement must precede construction.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees enrichment work, has expressed concerns about "near-surface disposal" of large amounts of depleted UF6, the report says. But those concerns apparently are related to humid environments and not the arid climate of the Nevada Test Site, DOE says.

The preferred option of converting the depleted UF6 into uranium dioxide (U02) for disposal or reuse is expected to cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. DOE says U02 appears to be the "most promising" of all the options because of potential large-scale use in making heavy concrete components for dry spent nuclear fuel storage silos and to fill voids in repositories for spent-fuel assemblies.

The DOE report assesses disposal forms of the converted material, which would come from 57,000 cylinders of waste left over from enriching uranium for nuclear fuel. About 47,000 of the cylinders are stored at the Paducah plant and the rest at the Portsmouth plant and a closed plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Governors and federal lawmakers in the three states, as well as labor unions representing the plants, have repeatedly criticized DOE for delaying and not adequately funding the project. The department says it will issue a request for proposals this fall after postponing it several times last year.

In 1998, Congress set aside $373 million and said conversion plants must be running by 2004 at Paducah and Portsmouth. Although the money is in a special interest-bearing Treasury fund, it must be appropriated by February 2002 or be lost to the general fund unless the deadline is extended.

The latest funding bill, calling for $33 million for conversion next fiscal year, remains in the Senate. Lawmakers and union officials say that is too little to perk serious interest from private firms, one of which would be picked to build and run the facilities.

DOE has responded that the funding is adequate, considering delays regarding trace contamination of more highly radioactive elements found in the waste. William Magwood, director of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, told Congress in April that he expected to award a contract next spring.

The department originally thought the contamination, which came from spent nuclear fuel, was in cylinders generated before 1980. However, contamination was found earlier this year in some canisters filled after 1980, and DOE has been investigating the problem.

The report says plutonium and similar contaminants "should not be a significant issue because they are expected to be present at very low concentrations and can be characterized readily" in conversion products. But because of the large volume of converted material and "heightened concern" about the contaminants, the problem "could become a national or local stakeholder issue," according to the report.

Plutonium and related contamination are key to two major lawsuits alleging that past Paducah plant contractors poisoned workers and the public. The radionuclides also were repeatedly cited by DOE investigations following the suits.

The report, which assesses converting, packaging, transporting and disposing of the waste, says the cheapest price tag is for converting the material to uranium tetrafluoride, UF4, and the most expensive for turning it into uranium metal.

The metal has established uses ranging from radiation shielding to nuclear weapons, but they are very limited. Other proposed uses in alloys and as forklift counterweights are as yet too speculative and carry nuclear safety concerns.

UF4 and an oxide other than UO2 are not directly useful, but UF4 can more readily be converted to other, more useful substances, the report says.