Aug. 15, 2019

National Academies Review of Report on Supplemental Low-Activity Waste at Hanford Nuclear Site Now Available for Public Comment

WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine – which reviews a separate report by a federally funded laboratory that examines options for treating low-activity radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- is available for public comment until Oct. 31.  A survey that can be used to comment on the National Academies report or the federally funded laboratory’s report is available online, along with links to both reports.

Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, which produced about two-thirds of the U.S. plutonium stockpile for nuclear weapons between 1944 and 1987, is one of the nation’s largest and most complex nuclear cleanup challenges. The U.S. Department of Energy’s current plan for treating the nearly 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste contained in 177 large tanks is to separate it into two waste streams: a high-level waste (HLW) stream that will have less than 10 percent of the volume but more than 90 percent of the radioactivity, and a low-activity waste (LAW) stream that will have more than 90 percent of the volume but less than 10 percent of the radioactivity.

DOE plans to use vitrification, or immobilization in glass waste forms, for all of the high-level waste and at least some of the low-activity waste, and it is constructing a Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant to perform this vitrification.  However, because of capacity limits at the new plant, not all of the low-activity waste can be treated there.  DOE will decide how to treat this extra waste, referred to as supplemental low-activity waste (SLAW), and build another facility to implement the treatment.

To inform this decision, and at the request of Congress, DOE commissioned a report from a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC), specifically the Savannah River National Laboratory, to assess options for treating and disposing of the SLAW. As a check on that work, Congress also requested that the National Academies review the FFRDC report in terms of its technical merit and its usefulness in informing DOE’s decision-making.

The FFRDC’s final draft report evaluates three potential technologies for treating the SLAW — vitrification, grouting, and fluidized bed steam reforming – and offers estimated costs and timelines for completing the work; it also examines different disposal sites for the treated SLAW.

The National Academies’ report finds that the FFRDC report does not yet provide the complete technical basis needed to support a final decision on a treatment approach, nor does it clearly lay out a framework of decisions to be made among treatment technologies, waste forms, and disposal locations. However, the FFRDC report provides useful steps forward and has considerably improved over previous versions in its focus, technical analysis, and responsiveness to the congressional mandate.

The FFRDC’s analysis can form the basis for future work, the National Academies’ report says. It recommends that going forward, the FFRDC report should:

The National Academies will be accepting public comments on its report through Oct. 31, 2019, when the Academies’ study committee will hold its final public meeting in Richland, Washington. After that meeting, the committee will review all received comments and assess whether changes need to be made to the findings and recommendations in the National Academies’ report. This final review and assessment will be published in a National Academies report, which is expected to be released in January 2020. The final FFRDC report is anticipated to be published in October 2019.

The study – undertaken by the Committee on Supplemental Treatment of Low-Activity Waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit

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Sara Frueh, Senior Media Officer

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