Reclassification of HLW could reduce risks while saving billions, DOE says

January 8, 2021, 7:02AMRadwaste Solutions

An engineered stainless steel container designed to hold LLW at Hanford. Photo: Bechtel National, Inc.

A Department of Energy report to the U.S. Congress shows that the reclassification of high-level radioactive waste could save more than $200 billion in treatment and disposal costs while allowing DOE sites to be cleaned up sooner—all still without jeopardizing public health and safety.

The report, Evaluation of Potential Opportunities to Classify Certain Defense Nuclear Waste from Reprocessing as Other than High-Level Radioactive Waste, identifies potential opportunities for the DOE to reduce risk to public and environment while completing its cleanup mission more efficiently and effectively. Those opportunities are based on the DOE’s 2019 interpretation of the statutory term HLW, which classifies waste based on its radiological characteristics rather than its origin.

Under the DOE’s interpretation of HLW, waste from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel may be determined to be non-HLW if the waste (1) does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in federal regulations and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility; or (2) does not require disposal in a deep geologic repository and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility as demonstrated through a performance assessment conducted in accordance with applicable requirements.

“Classifying these reprocessing wastes as non-HLW could enable DOE to begin disposition of such waste earlier; reduce costs; and lower the risk to workers, the public, and the environment,” the DOE report states.

Benefits: The DOE report specifically evaluates the inventory of reprocessing waste that is currently in storage or expected to be produced at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Idaho National Laboratory, and the Hanford Site in Washington. Based on its evaluation, the DOE found the following potential benefits:

  • Older batches of vitrified waste from SRS have sufficiently low radionuclide content to be candidates for alternative disposal in a LLW repository, potentially saving approximately $3 billion to $4 billion by eliminating the need to build additional storage capacity and by reducing off-site transportation and disposal costs.
  • Calcine waste at INL could be a candidate for alternative disposition without further, expensive treatment, potentially saving approximately $11 billion to $14 billion through avoidance of high-risk treatment and reduced cost of near-term off-site transportation and disposal; INL sodium-bearing waste also could be a candidate to classify as non-HLW, with potential cost savings of approximately $890 million to $1.2 billion.
  • Hanford could realize potential savings of $73 billion to $210 billion by treating low-activity tank waste by grouting, which would make the waste a candidate for alternative disposal sites, thereby avoiding the production of thousands of canisters of vitrified waste and decreasing the tank waste mission by at least a decade.

As a demonstration of the its HLW interpretation, the DOE recently disposed of 8 gallons of stabilized (grouted) recycle wastewater from the SRS Defense Waste Processing Facility at Waste Control Specialists’ commercial LLW disposal facility in Andrews County, Texas.

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