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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, May 5, 2004


INEEL: tanks clean-up advancing

Energy Department project remains controversial

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 hazardous chemicals.

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, Nev.

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 directly.

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 sending them.

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 words."

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 mess."


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