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Date: Dec. 16, 1999
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Solid Radioactive Waste Should Stay at a Facility in Southern Idaho Pending Better Information on Treatment and Disposal Options

WASHINGTON -- Solid radioactive waste should remain in storage at a federal facility in southern Idaho until uncertainties surrounding treatment options and ultimate disposal sites are resolved, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies. However, the liquid radioactive waste at the facility – known as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) -- should be converted into a safer form as soon as possible.

"Before making any decisions on how to treat the solid waste at INEEL, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should move aggressively to identify an acceptable site with the capacity to receive the material, routes to transport the waste for disposal, and treatment methods that will meet regulatory requirements at the disposal site," said Robert Forney of Unionville, Pa., retired executive vice president of DuPont and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "In the meantime, leaving the solid waste in place is the safest and most practical course of action."

The solid waste is classified as high level because it resulted from processing spent nuclear fuel. The committee could identify no significant hazard to public health or the environment while the solid waste is being stored, and radioactivity will continue to decrease during storage. The bins that contain the solid waste are designed to be secure for 500 years. However, an assessment of the bins should be conducted to confirm their integrity, the committee said. In addition, DOE should perform a thorough risk analysis to compare the costs and benefits of various disposal options with those of continuing to store the waste.

The low-level liquid waste – a byproduct of various cleanup operations at INEEL – is kept in tanks that do not meet federal regulatory requirements for long-term storage. The agency should identify options as soon as possible for converting the liquid waste -- composed of both hazardous chemicals and radioactive elements -- into a safer, solid form, the committee said. These solid wastes could then be shipped to the operating Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., or another facility equipped for storing low-level radioactive waste. If necessary, the DOE should use interim on-site storage until the solidified waste can be treated or shipped for disposal.

High-Level Waste

From 1953 until 1992, INEEL reprocessed a variety of spent nuclear fuels. The waste from these activities was converted into a solid, high-level waste form known as calcine. More than 4,000 cubic meters of calcine are stored in sets of stainless steel bins encased in concrete vaults.

A recent settlement agreement specified that this high-level waste should be converted to forms suitable for out-of-state disposal by 2035, but also noted that these terms could be modified based on future analysis of treatment options. For decades, DOE has been studying methods for treating the calcine waste, such as converting it into solid glass, cement, or ceramic forms for disposal. After the waste is repackaged and rendered safe for transporting, it would be permanently disposed of at specially designed underground facilities. The site where the waste would be permanently stored should be identified in advance to ensure that the waste is converted into appropriate forms for that site, the committee said. Many regulatory, legal, and technical uncertainties need to be resolved before an ultimate disposal site can be designated. Because the solid waste at INEEL resulted from processing spent nuclear fuel, the waste would need to be disposed of in a geological repository, such as that being proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nev. However, Yucca Mountain may not have the capacity to store the high-level waste from INEEL, and DOE does not yet have plans to build another underground repository equipped for handling waste. In addition, the requirements that the waste will need to meet for disposal have not yet been specified.

For these reasons, any decision on waste-treatment methods at this time would be premature, the committee said. The decision to continue storing the calcine waste in bins should be reassessed periodically as new information on treatment and disposal options becomes available.

Low-Level Waste

More than 5,000 cubic meters of liquid waste – classified as low-level waste – are contained in tanks at INEEL. DOE is committed to emptying these tanks by 2012. The committee explicitly urged DOE not to convert the low-level liquid waste into calcine and add it to the high-level waste -- one option being pursued by the agency. This action would only create more high-level waste, which would be counterproductive because requirements for its disposal are still unknown. Rather, alternatives for turning the liquid waste into a low-level, solid form should be examined, with the goal of producing a solid waste form that can be shipped to appropriate low-level waste disposal facilities. Turning the liquid waste into a solid form would reduce the risks that the waste could leak, the committee said. Options for converting the waste into solid forms include chemical evaporation and separation processes. The agency also should consider processes that have been developed for similar wastes at other DOE sites.

A small amount of residual waste will remain in the storage tanks and bins at INEEL regardless of which options are selected to retrieve and process the waste. The amount of residual waste to be left in place and the costs and risks involved should be assessed in order to develop criteria and specifications for permanently closing the waste storage tanks and bins, the committee said.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Alternative High-Level Waste Treatments at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Committee on Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory
High-Level Waste Alternative Treatments

Robert C. Forney* (chair)
Executive Vice President
E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. Inc. (retired)
Unionville, Pa.

Edward Aitken
Manager of Materials Development
General Electric Co. (retired), and
La Quinta, Calif.

Robert Bertucio
Engineer and Project Manager
Kent, Wash.

David O. Campbell
Nuclear Chemist
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (retired), and
Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Melvin S. Coops
Lawence Livermore National Laboratory and
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Delbert E. Day
Curators' Professor of Ceramic Engineering, and
Senior Investigator, Graduate Center for Materials Research
Department of Ceramic Engineering
University of Missouri

P. Gary Eller
Project Leader
Advanced Technology Group
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, N.M.

Rodney C. Ewing
Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

John M. Kerr
Innovative Technologies International Inc.
Lynchburg, Va.

Jean'ne M. Shreeve
Vice President for Research, and
Professor of Chemistry
University of Idaho

Minoru Tomozawa
Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, N.Y.


Thomas Kiess
Study Director

* Member, National Academy of Engineering