For the week of June 30, 1999  thru July 6, 1999  

Permits sought for INEEL waste incinerator

Activists question need for it

Express Staff Writer

Following a 60-day public comment period that ended Monday, the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ) must now decide whether to grant an air-quality permit for construction of a mixed nuclear and chemical waste incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Arco.

The permit is the first of three that British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., which has been awarded a contract to build the plant, will need to obtain from the state and federal governments before it can begin construction, scheduled for this fall.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which manages the INEEL, announced a decision in March to build the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project there. The purpose of the plant is to put nuclear and chemically contaminated waste into a form acceptable for transportation to, and permanent storage at, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M. Some of the waste will be incinerated and some will be compacted before being placed in new containers.

According to DOE spokesman Brad Bugger, the waste needs to be treated for three reasons: First, part of it contains polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, which currently cannot be legally disposed of in any way but incineration. PCBs have been blamed for cancer and other health problems.

The DOE has applied for a permit to dispose of PCBs at WIPP, but, Bugger said, that could take a long time to obtain—longer than the deadline of 2003 set by an agreement between Idaho and the federal government to have a treatment facility operating.

Second, the waste contains other chemicals that could produce explosive gases during transportation, and which therefore need to be removed.

Third, "transuranic" waste, which contains plutonium, must be concentrated before it can be permanently stored. Due to the wording of the legislation that created WIPP, the DOE finds itself in somewhat of a Catch-22. According to Bugger, WIPP is permitted to take plutonium-contaminated waste of only a certain concentration or higher. Much of the plutonium-contaminated waste to be shipped from INEEL to WIPP, he said, is below that threshold. Therefore, he said, that portion of the waste needs to be concentrated to raise the plutonium level.

But a representative of the Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group, contended during a sparsely attended public presentation in Ketchum on Thursday that the plant has been given the go-ahead without adequate evaluation of its need or review of potential environmental hazards.

"The Snake River Alliance has not come out and said, ‘We oppose this facility,’" said Margaret Stewart, the group’s central Idaho coordinator. "(But) we will oppose it if a lot of conditions are not met. We want to know why a lot of (our) concerns about the draft Environmental Impact Statement were not addressed. (The DOE) almost totally ignored all the testimony of the outside experts we brought in."

The department has stated that it will incinerate between 23 percent and 27 percent of the approximately 5 million cubic meters of waste slated to be treated at the plant. The alliance has contended that the DOE has produced no explanation to justify that percentage.

In addition, the group has argued that nuclear wastes buried at INEEL pose a far greater environmental threat, due to their proximity to the Snake River aquifer, than do the wastes that will be shipped to WIPP, which are stored above ground at the INEEL.

"It’s an obscene waste of money that could be used to treat waste that is a threat to our aquifer," Stewart said. "It’s a very short-sighted approach."

The DOE has stated that retrieving the buried wastes will be a massive undertaking for which it does not yet have a concrete plan of attack.


Dan Pitman, air quality permits manager for the state DEQ, said that following the recently concluded comment period, his agency has 15 days to either rule on British Nuclear Fuels’ application or to decide that it needs more time to evaluate the comments.

"That’s probably what will happen," he said. "It may be on the order of 60 days."

Pitman said Idaho’s air quality standards follow those set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, though the state’s are more stringent. He said the DEQ will evaluate whether the incineration and filtering processes proposed by British Nuclear Fuels will reduce pollutants to certain levels. He said permitted levels for 24-hour exposure will be set at highways near the plant, and those for annual exposure will be set at the boundaries of INEEL.

"There is a whole series of air-pollution-control equipment," Pitman said. "I’ve never seen anybody propose this level of control."

But Stewart contended that the agency cannot accurately predict emission levels because no one is sure what the barrels of waste that are to be treated contain.

In addition to the DEQ air-quality permit, British Nuclear Fuels will need to obtain a state permit for the treatment and storage of hazardous waste and a federal permit for incineration of PCBs.

Robert Bullock, DEQ hazardous waste permitting manager, said review of the hazardous waste permit application will include both the adequacy of storage and shipping containers and the air pollution involved in incinerating the wastes. He said the incineration process will need to destroy or filter out 99.99 percent of each of the hazardous substances involved.

Bullock said the DEQ has been reviewing British Nuclear Fuels’ hazardous-waste application since January 1998, and that it will probably take another month before the company has supplied all the information required. He said public hearings on the application will probably take place late this summer.

Catherine Massimino, a hazardous-waste specialist with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said a permit to incinerate PCBs is required under the Toxic Substances Control Act. She said British Nuclear Fuels will need to prove that its proposed engineering will destroy or remove 99.9999 percent of the PCBs involved.

Massimino said that in reviewing the permit, EPA is following the same schedule as that for the state’s hazardous-waste permit, and that public hearings for the two will probably be combined.

She said British Nuclear Fuels has supplied EPA with the necessary engineering information, but has not completed a required risk assessment.

In her presentation, the Snake River Alliance’s Stewart also faulted the local press for what she considered inadequate coverage of activities at INEEL.

"I think that’s quite alarming," she said. "I think the nuclear issue is the No. 1 environmental issue in this country."


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