This New Year, Can’t We Do The Right Thing With Our Nuclear Waste?

The Hanford Tanks hold 57 million gallons of what was once mostly high-level nuclear waste. But now much of it is low level waste that can be disposed of much easier, quicker and cheaper.U.S. DOE

The Nation’s largest volume of nuclear waste sits in 177 million-gallon-or-so tanks up at the Hanford Site in Washington State. 57 million gallons of what was once mostly high-level nuclear waste are in these tanks. 128 of them are older single shelled tanks, and 49 of them are newer double-shelled tanks.

But today much of this waste is lower level making disposal much easier, quicker and cheaper, using grouting methods we long ago developed to dispose of this type of waste, and shipping it to facilities we’ve built and licensed to take this waste.

Like we do with a lot of nuclear waste around the country.

Since it’s what we do commercially, it’s a lot cheaper, safer and easier than what we usually do at Hanford. Dry it, stabilize it and package it in containers designed for radioactive waste and approved by the Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This is especially true for the waste in 28 of these double-shelled tanks. Much of this waste is low activity waste, or LAW. It’s not very radioactive and it would be crazy to treat it like it’s really hot. Because it would be absurdly costly to do so. And would add decades of time to the project. And could even put some workers in harm’s way.

The Department of Energy has been conducting a three phase test on how to do this, called the Test Bed Initiative. Testing not just the technical stuff, we know that already, but the legal and regulatory stuff which is a lot harder.

That’s why they did the first phase in 2017 with just three gallons of tank waste. The regulatory and legal issues are the same for three gallons as they are for a million gallons. And the three-gallon test went perfectly. The waste was treated and packaged by PermaFix, and shipped to the WCS Federal Waste Facility in west Texas that is licensed and permitted to take this type of waste.

WCS’ license does not require low-level waste to be placed in a glass matrix like that planned for Hanford.

These tests are performed in accordance with all applicable regulations and are consistent with the Record of Decision for the Tank Closure and Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement for Hanford. And they better be since it wouldn’t happen if they weren’t.

The next phase is bigger - a 2,000-gallon amount of this waste - and could happen in the next few months if we don’t drag our feet. And if the Washington State Department of Ecology approves it.

This waste is completely different than commercial spent fuel from a power reactor which is dry, solid and easy to store in dry casks for a hundred years. In fact, it couldn’t be more different.

All of the tank waste was originally generated in making our nuclear weapons. Fuel rods were removed from our weapons reactors after only six months, dissolved up in acid and put through chemical steps that separated and purified the plutonium (Pu) and uranium (U). The process made a lot of waste, a combination of gooey sludge, saltcake and water, composed of some pretty nasty chemicals and radionuclides.

However, this waste has changed a lot over the decades as we took some of the hottest radionuclides out while half of them went through a decay life or two. And we removed most of the pump-able liquids. Also, some tanks are leaking so we’re moving waste into the newer double-shelled tanks that have room.

That’s why it’s so important to dispose of the waste in these double-shelled tanks using this new strategy. We need that space to put waste from leaking single-shelled tanks. Either that or we build new billion-dollar tanks to put the waste in, an absurdly expensive 1944 deja vu.

But we can keep this shell game going for only so long. We need to listen to scientists that know how to treat and dispose of this waste, not to 40-year-old definitions of what this waste is not now.

Given the state of our economy, easier, quicker, safer and cheaper is also a lot better.

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