At the end of June, a federal judge approved, with the agreement of the Washington State Department of Ecology, a request to push back the deadline 20 months for beginning nuclear waste treatment at the $17 billion Waste Treatment and Immobilization (Vit) Plant at the Hanford Site because of pandemic-related delays. The Direct-Feed Low-Activity Waste program is the Department of Energy’s plan to start treating low-level radioactive waste first at the Vit Plant and then start treating high-level radioactive waste sometime in the 2030s.
This is the fifth delay granted by the court for the project, which should have begun operations in 2007. In one sense, this delay is good, since turning LLW into glass through vitrification is about as smart as singing into the wind. The chemistry of this waste makes it much better suited to grouting, a treatment used by everyone else in the United States and the world.
Since this waste is not very radioactive, it’s crazy to treat it like it’s really hot. It would be absurdly costly to do so and would add decades of time to the project. It could even put some workers in harm’s way. That’s why only HLW or waste from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is vitrified. Unfortunately, we seem to be bound by a 30-year-old playbook that needs some updating. No one running the show now was involved in those old decisions—decisions made before we knew what we know now—so they can be forgiven for keeping with the plan.
The DOE Test Bed Initiative (TBI), a small-scale grouting test, was wildly successful. The waste was treated and packaged by PermaFix Northwest and shipped to the Waste Control Specialists’ (WCS’s) Federal Waste Facility in western Texas, which is licensed and permitted to take this type of waste. WCS’s license does not require low-level waste to be placed in a glass matrix. I mean, who would be insane enough to do that?
Further, the Tank-Side Cesium Removal (TSCR) system, which treats more than 7,000 gallons of water daily, has already separated and staged over 275,000 gallons of mixed LLW from a Hanford tank. By the end of this year, the one-million-gallon staging tank will be full of TSCR-treated waste that is ready for immobilization, perfect for grouting. However, as it stands now, TSCR will be shut down for at least 32 months while waiting for the Vit Plant.
If you add the fact that there are now fewer than a million gallons of HLW left out of the 57 million gallons in these tanks, it becomes even crazier. About 50 million gallons of what was once HLW are now mixed LLW and about 6 million are transuranic waste. Both of these have existing disposal pathways whose only hurdles are political.
Current plan: vitrification
Potential alternative: grouting
So, the DOE and Department of Ecology should move forward in a parallel way, vitrifying the HLW and grouting the LLW, a win-win for both cost and schedule, not to mention science. Working together to complete the already funded 2,000-gallon TBI grout demonstration with waste already staged by the TSCR and then continuing to grout waste already treated by TSCR would be an easy, quick, and cheap process.
The deadline extensions won’t alter starting treatment of HLW by 2033 or having the plant fully operational by 2036, but then, everyone involved knows they’ll be retired or dead by that time and won’t have to deal with the likelihood that those deadlines won’t be met, either.
The sad part is that if grouted as demonstrated by the TBI, most of this waste would be completely disposed of by 2036. Even sadder, the DOE thinks grout treatment makes more sense than the Vit Plant for LLW but isn’t allowed to talk about it, even though experts at the National Academies of Sciences, the Government Accountability Office, and the DOE’s national laboratories all agree grouting is best.
Worse still, the vitrification of all this waste, especially LLW, will never be sufficiently funded to ever be completed. The Department of Ecology is fantasizing that Congress will double Hanford’s budget to the necessary amount, but that will never happen. In 2017, we needed $4 billion for Hanford but got $2.4 billion. In 2019, we needed $3.5 billion but received $2.5 billion. In 2021, we needed $3.3 billion but were handed $2.7 billion. And now, in 2022, we need $4.2 billion but will probably only get $2.7 billion. By 2023, we will need $5 billion but we’ll be lucky if we receive $2.6 billion. These deficits add up, so by 2032 we’ll need an extra $30 billion just to catch up. And that will never happen.
With grouting, the work can be done on schedule, with the available funding. We could start next week with no real uncertainties. With vitrification, most of this waste will still be sitting here for another 50 years.