US to re-test Idaho nuclear waste treatment plant

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Problems with a nuclear waste treatment plant in eastern Idaho appear to be resolved, U.S. officials said, and the conversion of high-level liquid waste to safer, more manageable solids could begin early next year.

Joel Case of the US Department of Energy said a waste-free start-up test will begin next week at the integrated waste treatment unit at the Department of Energy’s 890 square mile site which includes the national laboratory of Idaho.

“I am very confident that we can fix the real process issues,” he said at an Idaho Cleanup Project Citizens Advisory Council meeting, but noted that the plant does hadn’t worked for several years, so there might be some issues. “These are now sustained operations.

The 900,000 gallons of sodium-containing radioactive waste comes from processing spent nuclear fuel to recover highly enriched uranium. The waste is in reservoirs above a giant aquifer that supplies water to towns and farms in the region.

Waste has been a sore point between Idaho and the Department of Energy for years, Case said, and the federal agency is paying a $ 6,000 a day fine for missing a deadline to turn liquid waste into solid matter, as stipulated in a 1995 agreement that was the culmination of a series of federal lawsuits.

Idaho, due to the 2013 deadline, is preventing the Department of Energy from bringing research amounts of spent nuclear fuel to the lab for study. Scientists say the spent fuel is needed to develop new technologies for the next wave of nuclear reactors that are part of a US strategy to develop nuclear power and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The ban could also hurt the lab’s status as one of the country’s top nuclear research labs, Energy Ministry officials said. Additionally, the lab is one of the state’s largest employers and a huge economic driver, especially in eastern Idaho.

But Idaho officials have been reluctant to cancel that part of the deal, which is broadly seen as preventing Idaho from becoming the nation’s top-level nuclear waste dump.

In 2019, Governor Brad Little and Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden granted a conditional waiver of the deal allowing the Department of Energy to bring research quantities of spent nuclear fuel into the state if the agency proved that the integrated waste treatment unit could handle liquid waste.

That could happen next year if everything goes as planned in the treatment plan, Case said. Scientists initially plan to use simulants rather than liquid waste, and then mix 10% sodium-containing waste into it. If this goes well, the waste will be increased to 50% and then to 100%. Case said once the plant reaches routine operations, slated for sometime next year, it will take around five years to process all liquid waste.

Solid waste will be placed in stainless steel containers, each containing approximately 35 cubic feet (1 cubic meter), and stored on site. The cans will be stored in groups of 16 in concrete vaults. The site can store 745 cans, Case said, but estimates indicate the waste could fill more than 1,000 cans. Case said that could mean building more storage.

Another possibility, officials said, is to try to reclassify solid waste as transuranium waste, which would allow it to be sent to the Energy Department’s waste isolation pilot plant in New Mexico.

The construction of the integrated waste treatment unit cost more than $ 500 million. Officials did not give an updated cost that included delays or additional work to run the plant.


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