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For the week of October 4 through 10, 2000

Panel reviews alternatives to incineration at INEEL

Incinerator deemed ‘not a likely possibility’

Opponents to the incinerator, many of whom live in or near Jackson, Wyo., downwind from INEEL, contend that incineration could release dangerous radioactive particles into the air.

Express Staff Writer

A committee charged with exploring alternatives to incineration of chemicals that are mixed with plutonium-contaminated wastes at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) is evaluating information it has received from at least 20 independent scientists.

Thursday was the deadline for responses to an international request for information on the subject distributed by the specially composed, “blue ribbon” panel.

The nine-member panel was formed as part of a settlement in March of a lawsuit filed by anti-nuclear activists against construction of a proposed waste incinerator. The panel consists of five scientists, three attorneys familiar with environmental law and one environmental activist.

Opponents to the incinerator, many of whom live in or near Jackson, Wyo., downwind from INEEL, contend that incineration could release dangerous radioactive particles into the air.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) agreed to postpone a decision on whether to build the incinerator until the panel has time to evaluate alternatives to it. As a result of the settlement, construction began in August on the rest of the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Facility. The plant is scheduled to begin operating by March 2003.

Panel chairman Ralph Cavanagh, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said the panel’s five Ph.D. scientists will review the information received in the recent responses and present their findings on that material to the panel during a meeting Oct. 11 in Denver.

The panel is scheduled to submit a final report to Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson by Dec. 15.

The purpose of the incinerator would be to destroy PCBs and other chemicals contained in the mixed waste, which is in temporary storage above ground, before it is shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, N.M., for permanent disposal. Most of the waste slated for shipment does not contain chemicals and therefore does not need incineration or other treatment. It will simply be compacted and packaged for shipment.

INEEL officials originally said that 22 percent of the 1.8 million cubic feet of waste slated for shipment contains chemical wastes as well as radioactive materials and would therefore need to be incinerated. However, WIPP received a federal permit last fall for storage of chemical wastes, and therefore only three percent of that waste now needs to be treated to destroy the chemical components, INEEL spokesman Brad Bugger said in an interview last week.

WIPP still cannot legally take PCB-contaminated waste, according to Susan Scott, media coordinator for Westinghouse, WIPP’s operating subcontractor. Scott said the company has discussed obtaining a PCB disposal permit from the state of New Mexico, but that those talks were “not very encouraging.”

“At this point we’re looking at our options, but we have so many other things going on right now that it’s not a priority,” she said.

Bugger said that although an incinerator could still be built, “it’s not a likely possibility.” He said that British Nuclear Fuels Limited, the subcontractor hired to build and operate the treatment facility, “certainly does not want to build an incinerator unless they have to.”

In a phone interview, Cavanagh said there are “literally dozens of alternatives available” to incineration, including chemical and biological processes, as well as treatments with heat short of burning the materials.

“We’re not going to have a view on whether incineration is a good idea,” he added. “The panel’s charge is solely to look at alternatives.”

Cavanagh said panel members would probably not want to discuss details of their research until the panel releases its draft report. He said that will occur sometime before the panel’s final public meeting, on Dec. 5 and 6 in Jackson.

The panel’s work is part of an effort by the DOE to find alternatives to incineration of mixed wastes at its sites nationwide. According to a draft DOE plan for that research, the department is considering closing all three of its mixed waste incinerators. Those are the Waste Experimental Reduction Facility at INEEL, which has been treating low-level mixed waste, and incinerators at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Savannah River, South Carolina.

The research program’s director, Bill Owca, said the plan should be finalized and ready for public release in about a month.

Bugger said the DOE had begun searching for treatment alternatives before the blue-ribbon panel was formed. The panel’s work, he said, is being coordinated with the DOE’s ongoing efforts. He described the panel as “an independent party looking over our shoulder” that will give assurance to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit opposing the incinerator at INEEL that the DOE is charting a sound course.


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