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Alternatives to High-Level Waste Vitrification: The Need for Common Sense

Jimmy T. Bell

Nuclear Technology

Volume 130 / Number 1 / April 2000 / Pages 89-98


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The competition for government funding for remediation of defense wastes (and for other legitimate government functions) is intensifying as the United States moves toward a balanced national budget. Determining waste remediation priorities for the use of available tax dollars will likely depend on established international agreements and on the real risks posed to human health.

Remediation of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) high-level radioactive tank wastes has been described as the most important priority in the DOE system. The proposed tank waste remediation at three DOE sites will include retrieval of the wastes from the aging storage tanks, immobilization of the wastes, and safe disposal of the processed waste. Vitrification, the current immobilization technology chosen by DOE, is very costly. The U.S. Congress and the American people may not be aware that the present cost of preparing just 1 m3 of processed waste product at the Savannah River Site is ~$2 million! In a smaller waste remediation project at the West Valley Site, similar waste treatment is costing >$2 million/m3 of waste product. Privatization efforts at the Hanford Site are now estimated to cost >$4 million/m3 of waste product. Even at the lowest current cost of $2 million/m3 of HLW glass product, the total estimated costs for remediating the tank wastes at the three DOE sites of Savannah River, Hanford, and Idaho Falls is $75 billion.

Whether our nation can afford treatment costs of this magnitude and whether Congress will be willing to appropriate these huge sums for waste vitrification when alternative technologies can provide safe disposal at considerably lower cost are questions that need to be addressed. The hazard levels posed by the DOE tank wastes do not warrant high priority in comparison to the hazards of other defense wastes. Unless DOE selects a lower-cost technology for tank waste remediation, such efforts are likely to continue in a holding pattern, with little actually accomplished. In many cases, selection of a lower-cost technology such as "dry and package" could safely accomplish the needed waste remediation while reducing both the time required and the remediation costs by as much as a factor of 10. Failure to implement realistic cost-saving waste disposal policies could result in congressional action to deny funding for the DOE's continued remediation of radioactive tank wastes.

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