Waste Management Conference: Focused on the future
The 2020 Waste Management Conference, held March 8–12 in Phoenix, Ariz., kicked off just days before the World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus a pandemic. When the conference began, it was still unclear how extensive the coronavirus outbreak would be, and meeting organizers later learned that two attendees were tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, in the days following the meeting. Fortunately, neither of the attendees tested positive.
During the meeting’s opening plenary session, with the pandemic unfolding, James Fiore, president of WM Symposia, began by thanking those in attendance and congratulating them for their commitment to the annual conference, which provides an open forum for discussing the management of radioactive waste and other topics. He noted that, regrettably, a number of conference regulars who have consistently attended the event for years chose to err on the side of caution and forego the trip to Phoenix this year.
The session’s first keynote speaker, Michael Lempke, president of the Nuclear and Environmental Group at Huntington Ingalls Industries, spoke about his role as chairman of the Energy Facility Contractors Group (EFCOG) and the group’s goals for expanding its contributions to the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Comprising 114 member companies, EFCOG’s stated objective is to further the missions of the DOE and the NNSA by sharing best practices and information to support management and operations. “I should state up front, for this group, we view environmental security as a key and essential piece of national security,” Lempke told the audience.
EFCOG has been working with the DOE for nearly 30 years, and Lempke said that the group’s board is building on its foundation in two key ways. First, EFCOG is working to take “clear accountability for our part of the system as long-term, world-class strategic partners.” EFCOG is doing this, he said, by employing a risk-management framework to identify strategic risks that, from the industry’s standpoint, pose the greatest risks to the DOE’s mission, and to determine the best mitigation actions for those risks. Lempke said that the EFCOG board had been planning to hold a closed meeting in Charlotte, N.C., in April for two days of facilitated sessions to finalize a list of risks and work on crafting mitigation strategies. That meeting, however, was canceled due to COVID-19.
One such strategic risk that EFCOG is looking at, Lempke said, is the waste management industry’s ability to maintain a highly trained and committed workforce. Mitigating that risk would entail identifying what critical workforce skills are needed, determining the demand for those skills, establishing training and development programs to support a talent pipeline, and then being able to deploy those assets across the DOE complex. Lempke noted that some mitigation actions can be implemented by EFCOG member companies, while some would need to be implemented by national laboratories and plant personnel. Other actions would need to be supported directly by the DOE, he said.
The second way in which EFCOG is contributing to the DOE mission is by establishing initiative-specific task teams. “We have done this successfully over the past six months and have delivered what I consider high-quality, quick-turn product at the request of senior DOE leadership in high-priority subject areas,” Lempke said. Some of the subject areas where EFCOG task teams have recently provided services to the DOE include human capital management, supply chain, data quality, and risk communications. “This goes to the heart of what EFCOG has done for years—share lessons learned and work to improve safe operations across the [DOE] complex,” he said.
Following Lempke, William Magwood, director general of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, began by noting that many of the issues in radioactive waste management are the same issues that existed when he began his career. “It shows that we really have to think strategically about what we’re doing, because we have not made as much progress as one would have expected,” he said.
In highlighting the work of the NEA, Magwood pointed to the agency’s new Committee on Decommissioning of Nuclear Installations and Legacy Management. Formed in 2018, it is the first committee the NEA has created in 25 years, he said. The formation of the committee was in response to the growing number of commercial nuclear power plants and facilities undergoing decommissioning and the need for a global understanding of legacy facilities.
Magwood said that for commercial nuclear power plants, the deactivation and decommissioning challenges are fairly well understood. He noted, however, that out of the approximately 160 reactors that have been shut down around the world, only about 15 have been fully decommissioned, mainly in the United States. “We see that, when we look at these D&D activities, a lack of an integrated and optimized approach has really had a big impact on both the decommissioning of commercial facilities and on the legacy facilities,” he said.
To improve decommissioning, Magwood said, the NEA has been having wide-ranging discussions that focus on what activities could be done earlier to facilitate D&D work being done today. In doing so, the NEA is asking what the industry could have been doing in the past to make current D&D work easier and if there’s anything that can be done now to support future work.
Magwood pointed to the need to design nuclear facilities with disposal in mind, much in the same way that the automobile industry has begun thinking about building cars that are not only easier to put together, but are easy to take apart and recycle or dispose of. Eventually, Magwood said, regulators may have to become engaged and require reactor designers to take end of life and decommissioning into consideration before plants are built. “We can’t just be interested in building facilities that work for us today, we have to be thinking about the long term,” he said.
At the same time, there is a need for a more flexible but stable regulatory framework, Magwood said. An over-compliance to regulations is costing billions of dollars in unnecessary work, he said, adding that regulators will need to think smarter about hazards and ensure that costs are balanced with benefits. “If you focus on over-compliance, you are never going to get better,” he said.
Finally, Magwood stressed the need for stakeholder involvement and public engagement in any decommissioning or waste management project. “Ultimately, if you can’t bring the public along in these conversations, you’re not going to have a sustainable process and a sustainable project,” he said.
The plenary’s final speaker, William “Ike” White, DOE senior advisor for environmental management, said that 2020 will serve as a milestone year for the DOE and its Office of Environmental Management (EM), commencing a decade of cleanup progress. “For many, 2020 is an inflection point for sites across the EM program,” he said. “It is a time to look ahead and contemplate the step change we will achieve in the decade ahead.”
White used the plenary session to announce the DOE’s release of its strategic vision for the coming decade, as contained in the report A Time of Transition and Transformation: EM Vision 2020-2030. The report highlights planned achievements for the next 10 years, including the progress that the DOE expects to make in treating radioactive tank waste and closing underground tanks at its Hanford, Savannah River, and Idaho sites. “This vision provides a vivid picture of what our sites will look like by 2030,” White said.
To reach this vision, White said, the DOE, using an end-state contracting model, will be awarding billions of dollars in procurements at EM sites over the next few years, representing a significant opportunity for DOE contractors. “This contracting push will result in the widespread application of our end-state contracting model to get the best value, encourage innovation, and bring the best partners to the table,” he said. The new contract model will provide EM the ability to group work into specific task orders, which will allow more clarity, shorter time horizons, and more accurate cost and schedule estimates, White said, adding that the contracts also will provide incentives to motivate contractors to improve their performance in meeting costs and schedules.
White also noted that by the end of the year, the DOE hopes to award a new EM-managed, stand-alone contract for the management and operation of the Savannah River National Laboratory. The site-wide contract, he said, will enhance the ability of the lab to pursue its continuing missions by focusing on research and development, increasing its ability to pursue more diversified projects, and attracting additional expertise through partnerships with academia.
The panel session “Hot Topics in DOE Environmental Management” is held every year at the Waste Management Conference and is always a popular meeting event. The session allows contractors to learn what sites and projects that EM is prioritizing and where the department will likely be allocating funds.
Session cochair Martin Schneider, of Longenecker and Associates, who served as the panel moderator, noted that the intent of the session was to “drill down” on the strategic vision outlined by Ike White during the opening plenary session, as well as to serve as an “executive summary” of the overall conference.
Schneider began the interactive session by asking Michael Budney, site manager of the DOE’s Savannah River Site, what the planned startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF) will mean to the site’s mission. The DOE has said the SWPF, built to accelerate the treatment of Savannah River’s radioactive liquid tank waste, was set to begin operation by this summer. Budney said that while the SWPF will quicken the cleanup of the site’s waste tanks and reduce life cycle costs, the facility also raises some operational challenges. “SWPF has this great capability, but it means we have to get the entire liquid waste [system] to operate at that same pace,” he said, adding that operations will work 24/7. As part of liquid waste treatment operations at SRS, the facility will need to work in coordination with the Defense Waste Processing Facility and the Saltstone Disposal Facility at the site. Budney also noted that there will need to be coordination among the three major contractors that will be involved in the liquid waste management system: Parsons, Savannah River Remediation, and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.
Betsy Connell, EM associate deputy assistant secretary for regulatory and policy affairs, added that as the DOE shifts to operations and begins making progress in treating tank waste at SRS and the Hanford and Idaho sites, it will demonstrate that the department is “able to make tangible and sustained progress toward addressing our largest environmental risk—tank waste.” Connell said that progress made in treating tank waste could open new opportunities to advance site cleanup.
“We are challenging ourselves to think outside the box,” she said, “and we hope that we can work with the regulators and the stakeholders to look at how we can get cleanup done efficiently, effectively, and in a way that is protective of human health and the environment.” As an example, Connell said that EM is interested in looking at the work the Environmental Protection Agency is doing, through its Superfund Task Force, to reform its Superfund program. That reform work, she said, could reveal a number of opportunities for EM to streamline its cleanup work, such as using adaptive management and core-team approaches to managing projects.
Asked about the White House’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget reductions for Los Alamos National Laboratory and other DOE sites, Todd Shrader, EM principal deputy assistant secretary, said that while some budgets have been scaled back, there are sufficient carryover funds to meet site cleanup milestones and commitments without affecting DOE and contractor workers. “We feel confident that although the [budget] request seems low, based on some previous years’ money and carryover [funds], we will be fine for completing all our consent agreements,” he said.
Dae Chung, EM associate deputy assistant secretary for corporate services, discussed the DOE’s end-state contracting model and the possible impact on contractors. Chung, who was recently appointed to his current position, said that while he was not involved in the early development stages of the contracting strategy, there has been good communication between the DOE and its industry partners. “But, as with any new changes or modification to existing processes, there is perhaps a larger degree of uncertainty,” he added. Chung warned that there may be unforeseen instances in the new contracting process that may prompt contractors to submit protests, which he said is completely acceptable and ensures that the DOE is following procurement rules and procedures.
Chung, however, said that the new contracting strategy will open new opportunities for the DOE and its contractors. “As we learn this process, I think there’s going to be a significant payoff at the end of the day,” he said.
On December 10, 2019, the DOE published in the Federal Register a draft environmental assessment of the proposed disposal of 10,000 gallons of recycle wastewater from the Savannah River Site’s Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF) (NN, Jan. 2020, p. 62). For the DOE, disposal of the SRS recycle wastewater at a commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facility is a first step in determining whether and how to implement its revised interpretation of high-level radioactive waste, announced in October 2018, to a particular waste stream. The “DOE HLW Interpretation” panel session provided a status report on the draft environmental assessment, along with an overview of the DOE’s interpretation of the statutory term “high-level radioactive waste.”
“This initiative has been huge for us and a long time coming,” said Theresa Kliczewski, environmental protection specialist with the DOE. Kliczewski pointed out that the DOE’s clarification of the interpretation of HLW as set forth in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has been in the works at the department for years. The DOE has said that the interpretation will allow radioactive waste to be managed based on its radiological characteristics rather than its origin.
After being extended for an additional 32 days, the comment period on the SRS recycle wastewater environmental assessment ended on February 10. Kliczewski said that the DOE was still reviewing comments on the assessment but was close to issuing a final report. The department received 19 public comment “documents,” she said, each containing multiple individual comments, which were submitted by state regulators, private industry, environmental groups, and the general public. Kliczewski noted that the environmental assessment is part of the regulatory review process under the National Environmental Policy Act and that the final report will not constitute a conclusive decision on the wastewater disposal.
Some of the technical aspects of disposing of the SRS recycle wastewater were discussed by Kent Rosenberger, engineering manager with Savannah River Remediation, the DOE’s site liquid waste contractor. “This is all about evaluating options at the end of the [waste tank] life cycle,” Rosenberger said, adding that a disposal path is needed for the wastewater once all of Savannah River’s tank waste is processed and the tanks are closed. The goal, he said, is to transport the wastewater, which is generated from the DWPF waste vitrification operations, to an off-site commercial LLW facility, either in its liquid form or after it has been solidified.
Rick McCloud, president of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, which promotes the economic redevelopment of the Savannah River Site, gave the perspective of the Energy Communities Alliance (ECA) on the HLW interpretation. McCloud was speaking for Kara Colton of the ECA, who was unable to attend the meeting. ECA is a nonprofit, membership organization of local governments adjacent to or impacted by DOE sites.
McCloud, who noted that SRS has become a de facto HLW storage site in the absence of the Yucca Mountain repository, said that ECA supports the DOE’s proposed HLW interpretation and wants to enhance stakeholder engagement in its implementation. He stressed that the interpretation is not a shift in U.S. policy, but is a clarification of regulations. McCloud added that the interpretation could speed up the remediation of DOE sites and result in savings of about $40 million a year in cleanup costs.
ECA has published two reports on the DOE’s approach to interpreting HLW: Waste Disposition: A New Approach to DOE’s Waste Management Must be Pursued, released in September 2017, and Making Informed Decisions on DOE’s Proposed High Level Waste Definition, issued in October 2018. Both publications are available on the ECA website.—Tim Gregoire