The Department of Energy on Tuesday made public a 27-page “framework for discussion” outlining different strategies to jump start the treatment of highly radioactive waste stored at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington.
The document's focus is the Waste Treatment Plant, a multi-billion-dollar facility that would process liquid waste into glass logs for stable long-term storage. Work on part of the plant was halted last year after concerns were raised about whether design flaws could result in dangerous leaks, or even explosions, that would spread radiation into the environment.
The discussion paper recommends designing and constructing a new Interim Pretreatment System Facility that would be used to send low activity waste to the WTP so that the long-awaited treatment of liquid wastes could begin as soon as possible. The new facility would allow Hanford to bypass the most technically troubled part of the existing WTP facility.
“[I]mmobilization of any waste could not occur per the current plan until the technical issues involving the [Pretreatment Facility] are resolved. Therefore, an alternative approach for immobilizing waste as soon as practicable, while simultaneously resolving the remaining technical challenges, has been identified,” wrote the Department of Energy.
The paper did not suggest any concrete plans on how to deal with the high-level waste stored at Hanford. The DOE says several panels of experts have convened to solve technical issues already identified in the portion of the WTP designed to deal with that material.
“The timing of resolution of these issues will determine when construction can begin again on the [High Level Waste] and [Pretreatment] Facilities,” wrote the DOE.
Currently, the 56 million gallons of nuclear by-products left behind by 40 years of plutonium production at Hanford is stored in 177 underground storage tanks. Most of the tanks are in use far beyond their design life; nearly 70 have been identified as leaking waste over the years.
The DOE document indirectly suggests that new storage tanks may be needed because the current ones were not built to handle the necessary processes before any waste could be processed: "Alternative locations for characterization and sampling will be analyzed as part of the alternatives analysis that will be performed for the tank waste characterization and sampling capability."
Any plan moving forward would first have to agreed upon by the state of Washington.
“I am pleased that Secretary Moniz has provided the State with the ‘Framework’ document he committed to give me during our meeting in June. We have requested additional technical information to fully understand the details of the phased approach for the treatment of waste in Hanford’s aging tanks,” said Gov. Jay Inslee.
The plan drew some blunt criticism from the watchdog group Hanford Challenge: "This is essentially a plan for a plan that sidestep some tough technical issues such as the massive breakdown in quality assurance that require resolution before moving ahead. We urge the DOE to immediately begin construction of new double-shell tanks at Hanford to provide urgently-needed protection against further tank leaks."
The nuclear waste cleanup at Hanford is a $2 billion-a-year operation funded by U.S. taxpayers. The project won’t be complete until 2040, at the earliest, and some projections show the cleanup costing $114 billion by the end of the century. Contamination at the Hanford Site is the result of the U.S. nuclear bomb program – begun during World War II and active until the end of the Cold War.