Friday, October 22, 2004

INEEL cleanup plan to proceed

Some radioactive material would be left in place

Express Staff Writer

Following recently passed congressional legislation, the U.S. Department of Energy hopes to proceed with a plan that will allow it to clean up radioactive liquid wastes stored at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory but leave some radioactive material in place.

Nuclear activists contend the plan could result in radioactive pollution of the Snake River aquifer.

The future of high-level liquid wastes stored in 11 underground tanks at the site has been controversial since the DOE announced its plan to ship the liquids to Yucca Mountain, north of Las Vegas, Nev., for permanent disposal, but to leave sludge in the bottom of the tanks and grout it in place. A lawsuit filed in 2002 by two environmental organizations and the Yakama Indian Tribe put that plan on hold.

Language was added to the 2005 Defense Department Authorization Bill, passed by Congress about two weeks ago, to allow the cleanup to proceed. The bill exempts material remaining in the 300,000-gallon tanks once they have otherwise been cleaned from a requirement that it all be disposed of at Yucca Mountain.

The bill also applies to the DOE?s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which stores far more high-level liquid wastes than INEEL does.

?The new legislation allows DOE to move forward with our original plan, working with the states, to remove to the extent practicable the materials in the tanks and then grout the remainder,? Joseph Davis, a spokesperson for the DOE, said last week.

The bill allows the DOE to leave material in place if it does not exceed radioactivity limits set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for classification as low-level waste, or if it exceeds those limits but is part of a plan approved by the state of Idaho.

Kathleen Trevor, state of Idaho coordinator for INEEL oversight, said the state would only approve such a plan if the sludge left in the bottom of the tanks does not exceed the radioactivity ceiling set for low-level waste.

?If it?s still high-level waste, it still has to leave Idaho and be disposed of in a repository,? Trevor said.

The new legislation is a compromise between the environmental groups? contention that all wastes in the tanks need to be disposed of at Yucca Mountain and the DOE?s claim that it has the right to determine which wastes need to be shipped there and which do not.

?What this legislation does is set limits on the DOE?s discretion,? Trevor said.

However, the Snake River Alliance nuclear watchdog group claims the bill leaves the site in a more dangerous position than before. Jeremy Maxand, the group?s executive director, contended that over the long term, grouting is not a reliable way to isolate radioactive sludge from the Snake River aquifer, which flows beneath the site. He cites a 1992 study conducted by the DOE at its Hanford, Wash., site that showed that the high temperatures produced by radioactive decay could cause grout to crack.

A report released Monday, Oct. 18, by the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, located in Takoma Park, Md., also backs up the group?s contentions.

??(T)here is no valid scientific basis for ? claims of safety and effectiveness of grout,? the report states. ?The current proposal can best be summarized as a continuation of ? the DOE?s ?out of sight out of mind? philosophy of waste management.?

Brice Smith, a project scientist at the institute and the report?s author, said in an interview that the only way to reduce the level of radioactivity of the sludge left in the tanks is to dilute it with the grout itself. However, he said, tests have shown that the grout and sludge do not mix well. Instead, he said, what results is a ?sandwich? of radioactive sludge between two layers of grout. He said such layering is susceptible to leakage.

Studies on the subject, Smith said, have concluded that more studies are needed.

Maxand pointed out that once the tanks are grouted, the material will be virtually impossible to retrieve if it is found to be leaking into the aquifer.

He said that despite the recent legislation, the Snake River Alliance will continue to oppose the DOE?s cleanup plan.

?This is literally going to be a tank-by-tank battle to make sure nothing gets left behind that poses a long-term threat,? he said.

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