Attracting more than 2,000 attendees, the 2023 Waste Management Symposia was held February 26–March 2 in Phoenix, Ariz. For many, this year’s conference was a return to business as usual, with a packed exhibit hall and well-attended technical session, as the upheaval brought about by the pandemic that began three years earlier seemed a thing of the pasts. Not that those who gathered in Phoenix threw any caution to the unseasonably cold and rainy winds that descended across Arizona this year.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Planning for the Future: Innovation, Transformation, Sustainability,” with a new technical track focusing on advanced nuclear technology. Informally, the meeting’s theme could well have been dedicated to planning for the future workforce, with many attendees and panel sessions discussing the ever-growing problem of attracting new workers to the fields of waste management and environmental remediation.
Most notably, the Department of Energy, in collaboration with WM Symposia, held a job fair outside the exhibit hall over two days. The fair provided a chance for job seekers to meet face to face with recruiters learn more about available positions in a number of fields related to radioactive materials management, remediation, and engineering.
This year’s conference also celebrated its fifth annual STEM initiative to support science, technology, engineering, and math education for younger students. The initiative aims to develop and maintain a talent pipeline to the waste management community. In addition to holding STEM sessions throughout the conference, a featured space within the exhibit hall called the STEM Zone was dedicated to STEM resources, and attendees were encouraged to participate in a STEM scavenger hunt.
Opening plenary: As she did for last year’s conference, DOE energy secretary Jennifer Granholm opened the plenary via prerecorded video message. This year, Granholm noted that the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) achieved a majority of its cleanup priorities for the previous year ahead of time and under budget.
Granholm also noted that as DOE-EM is preparing to tackle its toughest challenge in treating its inventory of liquid tank waste, the office is also beginning to look at the future of its sites and their uses. “The possibilities are just infinite,” she said. “Not just cleaner air and water, but more opportunities for workers, families, and tribes.”
Some of the possible opportunities Granholm listed were new department missions in scientific research, national security, and clean energy, as well as opportunities to invigorate local economies through industrial reuse.
Touching on workforce issues, Granholm said she was glad to see that this year’s conference attracted a record number of students and young professionals, and she encouraged them to pursue careers in the DOE. “No matter where you are looking, no matter where your interests lie, whether it may be in a lab, in a field, or in your community, we need you on board,” she said.
France's carbon goals: France was the conference’s featured country, and Sophie Mourlon, director of energy for France’s Ministry of Energy Transition, provided the plenary with an overview of the country’s goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. The difficulty, Mourlon said, is that while nuclear remains a major part of France’s electricity mix, accounting for around 70 percent of electricity production, the country is still very dependent on fossil fuels for other energy needs, including transportation and heating.
Mourlon also highlighted President Emmanuel Macron’s decision, announced in February 2022, to build new build new nuclear power reactors and extend the life of France’s older reactors, reversing his predecessor’s commitment to cap nuclear power to 50 percent of the country’s energy share. Mourlon said Macron’s proposed program, which is subject to public debate and review by France’s parliament, would build six new EPR reactors. The proposal would also provide for the possibility of building eight additional reactors at existing sites while investing in the development of small modular reactors.
France’s energy policy decisions have important implications for the nuclear fuel cycle—particularly for waste management, Mourlon said. “Public expectations on the issue of waste management are not only a technical issue, [they] are also a condition of public acceptance for nuclear,” she added. To align public acceptance with policy, Mourlon said that France has developed a comprehensive waste management plan based on its decades of experience producing nuclear power.
While Mourlon said she would share more details of France’s waste management plan during a later conference session, she did say it included the completion of the Cigéo project, France’s planned deep geological repository for high-level radioactive waste that has been in development since 1991. “It is coming into an operational phase and will start permitting this year,” she said of the repository. “This is very important feat.” The French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (Andra), which is managing the project, submitted its construction license application for Cigéo at the beginning of the year.
Mourlon concluded by recognizing that, as with the United States, France will face the challenge of finding a skilled workforce if it is to grow its nuclear program.
Learning from others: Jean-François Nogrette, chief executive officer of Veolia France, followed Mourlon by talking about how the civil nuclear and radwaste industry can learn from the hazardous waste industry. “I believe there is a significant opportunity to create synergy between these two sectors,” he said.
Nogrette noted that many of the challenges facing the two industries are the same, including creating a sustainable treatment model that is publicly acceptable, maintaining costs through productivity, and using available resources to develop new treatment and recycling technologies. “The biggest lesson from [the hazardous waste] sector is that productivity is key,” he added.
As an example, Nogrette said that originally chemical waste was treated directly at production plants, a costly approach that few companies could sustain. “Globally, chemical wastes were poorly managed,” he said. “Practices have since evolved toward specialized larger plants shared by several industrials, maximizing value in terms of environment, safety, and cost efficiency.”
To increase productivity, Nogrette said that the nuclear waste industry should explore the idea of waste hubs, with complementary systems and technologies co-located. It is an approach the hazardous waste industry has been using for years, he said.
Nogrette used Veolia’s hazardous waste facility in Limay, France, as an example of a waste hub, noting that the facility uses various complementary waste treatment processes, such as evaporation, incineration, physical-chemical treatment, stabilization, and water recycling, as well as biodiesel production. “The combination of processes and the reduction in energy consumption due to the scale effect has led to a decrease in capital and operational costs,” he said.
Not all technological solutions, however, can be transferred from other industries, Nogrette conceded. Technological innovations are needed that target problems specific to radwaste management, he said, adding that those innovations often need to be subsidized through public investment banks, research funding, and tax breaks. Such incentives already exist in the nuclear sector, he continued, noting that Veolia is involved with government backed and funded radwaste projects in France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. “Without funding, most of these initiatives would not even get off the ground,” he said.
EM progress: William “Ike” White, senior advisor for the DOE-EM, concluded the plenary by discussing progress the office has made over the past year at some of its sites, including the Hanford Site in Washington state, the Idaho Site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
White also noted that at Ohio’s Portsmouth Site, which last year completed the demolition of the X-326 uranium process building, DOE-EM recently returned 280 acres of land to the community for reuse and reindustrialization. The remediation of Portsmouth and the transfer of its land back to the community will continue to contribute to the future of Pike County and surrounding communities for decades to come, he said.
White added that DOE-EM has had similar success at the Oak Ridge Reservation, where remediated land was transferred to the community for the development of the East Tennessee Technology Park.
“It is about setting the stage for a new chapter in communities that have supported our country for so many years,” White said of repurposing DOE cleanup sites. “These types of opportunities that exist are not just an afterthought for the cleanup program, they’re a driving force behind the manner in which we conduct our mission.”
One of DOE-EM’s biggest remaining challenges, according to White, is in the treatment of radioactive tank waste, which he said is the department’s largest environmental liability. Citing the progress being made at the Idaho and Savannah River sites, he noted that DOE-EM continues to shift from facility construction to actual operations.
Likewise, Hanford is moving forward in its goal of vitrifying the site’s tank waste, which can serve to provide lessons on how the DOE can better address the complex challenges associated with its tank waste, White continued. As part of that, a network of DOE laboratories is working on a research and development roadmap aimed at accelerating the Hanford tank waste mission. “This roadmap will be used to continually identify new opportunities and deployed technologies and help improve efficiency and accelerate schedule for our tank waste mission campaign,” he said, adding that DOE-EM hopes to implement the roadmap’s recommendations later this year.
White concluded by highlighting the importance of engaging and aligning with regulators and stakeholders, particularly as the department begins tackling its biggest cleanup challenges. “This is going to be a continuous process, but it will yield results on shared priorities going forward,” he said.