INEEL: tanks clean-up advancing
Energy Department project remains
By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer
The U.S. Department of Energy has made
considerable progress cleaning tanks that contain high-level radioactive wastes
located above the Snake River Aquifer, the Idaho National Engineering and
Environmental Laboratory’s new manager said last week.
However, a potential funding freeze next
year could stall the cleanup--a move that Wood River Valley activists say
amounts to extortion by the DOE to get its way on the controversial project.
During the past six months, INEEL Manager
Elizabeth Sellers has been meeting with community leaders throughout southern
Idaho to apprise them of cleanup progress and of the DOE’s future projects at
the site. No Wood River Valley government officials attended Seller’s talk at
the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum on Thursday, but a dozen local citizens did.
Sellers reported accelerated progress on
cleaning both the site’s 10 high-level liquid waste tanks and on a demonstration
cleanup project at the notorious Pit 9, which contains solid radioactive wastes
contained in drums buried underground.
The liquid-waste tanks store solvents used
to clean equipment used in the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from Navy
submarines and aircraft carriers. They contain both radioactive material and
Some of the pipes connecting the tanks
have leaked in the past, allowing some of the liquid to contaminate the soil.
However, INEEL spokesman Brad Bugger said the leaks have been repaired. The
tanks lie about 500 feet above the aquifer.
Sellers said workers have cleaned five of
the tanks and started on a sixth two weeks ago.
"We’re cleaning these things up as clean
as you can possibly get them," she said.
The liquids are to be consolidated into
three tanks pending a decision on what to do with them next.
The project has been controversial since
it began about two years ago. The DOE would like to characterize the material
removed as "mixed transuranic waste," which would allow it to be disposed of at
the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico rather than at the
proposed, but not yet opened, high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain,
The Yucca Mountain repository is designed
to contain penetrating radioactive materials that need to be shielded and
handled remotely, and that give off heat. WIPP, a series of caverns dug out of a
large salt deposit, is designed to contain drums of transuranic waste, which
contain plutonium and americium. Those materials are radioactive, but are
hazardous only through ingestion, and the drums containing them can be handled
Even if it receives the necessary approval
from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Yucca Mountain is not expected to be
open to receive waste shipments until 2010. Bugger said the department believes
the wastes can be removed from INEEL sooner if they can be sent to WIPP.
The federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act
requires radioactive material "resulting from" the processing of nuclear fuel to
be characterized as high-level waste, and sent to Yucca Mountain. But the DOE
contends that the liquids stored at INEEL were used only indirectly in
reprocessing as cleaning solvents, and therefore should not come under the act’s
definition. Bugger acknowledged that like high-level radioactive waste, the
liquids contain penetrating, heat-giving radioactive materials, but said those
are in small enough quantities that the wastes could be safely handled at WIPP.
However, environmentalists objected to the
DOE’s position and brought suit in federal court. Last July, District Court
Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with the plaintiffs, and ordered the DOE to proceed
on a course toward sending the wastes to Yucca Mountain. The DOE has appealed.
The department’s fiscal 2005 budget states
that if the case is not decided by next year, it will withhold $97 million
allocated for the liquid-waste cleanup at INEEL, as well as money for similar
cleanup efforts at Hanford, Wash., and Savannah River, S.C.
"That is a real strong-arm tactic,"
contended Hailey resident David Kipping, chair of INEEL’s Citizens Advisory
Board, in an interview. "They’re saying, ‘Unless we get our way, we’re not going
to give you the money to clean up anything.’"
Bugger said the DOE simply doesn’t want to
ask Congress for money that it won’t be able to spend. He said the cleanup will
not be able to proceed until the department knows how it will have to solidify
and package the wastes—and it won’t know that until it knows where it will be
An additional wrinkle is that even if the
DOE succeeds in reclassifying the wastes, they may not be accepted at WIPP. The
state of New Mexico is in the process of modifying the DOE’s hazardous waste
permit to prohibit reclassifying high-level waste. A hearing on the question is
scheduled for June.
"The fact of the matter is that the DOE
has always handled it as high-level waste," said Jon Goldstein, communications
director for the New Mexico Environment Department, "They’ve playing with
The outcome of the court case will also
determine how the DOE deals with the contaminated soil below the tanks. Bugger
said the department is just in the "investigative stage" on that issue, but
hopes to have the contaminated area either capped or cleaned out by 2006.
Kipping contended that the longer the DOE
continues its court fight, the more threat the wastes pose to the environment.
"The longer it sits there and the more it
rains, the greater the chance that it will get into the aquifer," he said.
He called the situation "a great big