Radioactive waste retrieval nearly complete

Workers with former cleanup contractor Idaho Treatment Group remove drums filled with radioactive waste at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, in this undated photo. All the drums have now been removed, and only about 20 boxes remain to be unearthed from a soil berm that has covered the waste for decades. Courtesy ITG

Fred Hughes, president and program manager of Fluor Idaho, discusses how the transition has gone since the cleanup contractor took over the five-year, $1.4 billion project in this June 2016 file photo. Hughes said Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project employees are nearly finished with retrieving what was 65,000 cubic meters of waste boxes, drums and dirt. Monte LaOrange /

Workers at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project are nearly finished retrieving radioactive waste from the facility’s airplane hangar-like building, a process that began in 2003.

From the windows of a control room, employees can finally see the rear wall of a building that used to be filled nearly to the ceiling with 65,000 cubic meters of waste boxes, drums and dirt.

There are only 28 boxes left to retrieve, and officials with the U.S. Department of Energy and contractor Fluor Idaho expect to finish the job later this month. Three of the boxes are “heavily degraded” and workers have been testing out new protective equipment to safely access them, said Fluor Idaho President Fred Hughes.

While retrieval is nearly complete, there is still waste treatment work to finish at AMWTP. And there is a looming state deadline for the waste to leave Idaho, which DOE appears unlikely to meet. Officials also are awaiting answers on the future of the facility, after its current mission is done.

Workers reassigned

About 25 to 30 workers focused on retrieval efforts will be reassigned to treatment duties after they are finished. Some employees were initially worried they’d be out of a job, Hughes said.

“My management team and I sat down with the workers and said, ‘OK, when retrieval is done, this is where you’re going to support the rest of the project,’” he said. “And it was like turning on the afterburners. They’ve been really going at it.”

Jack Zimmerman, DOE’s Idaho Cleanup Project deputy director, said he’s been impressed with Fluor’s pace retrieving and treating waste since taking over the contract in June. Under Fluor, he said, AMWTP workers had several weeks where they treated and packaged the most waste in years.

Certified for disposal

The transuranic waste at AMWTP includes tools, machinery, clothing and sludge — much of it contaminated with plutonium. It came in the 1970s and ’80s from the now-closed Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, where nuclear weapon components were made.

Treating the waste involves opening the containers, sorting the waste, compacting it, and placing it inside new containers for shipment. The transuranic waste is shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, while some less radioactive waste is accepted by repositories in Nevada and Utah.

The waste is required to leave the state before the end of 2018, according to the DOE’s 1995 Settlement Agreement with Idaho. But the department is unlikely to meet that milestone due to delays at WIPP, which has only recently reopened following a pair of accidents three years ago. A backlog of more than 900 shipments are stored in Idaho, and WIPP plans to accept only five shipments per week from waste generator sites starting in the spring.

AMWTP has undergone two audits since December to ensure its waste and operations are ready to again start shipping waste to New Mexico, Hughes said. The strict waste re-certification protocols are in place around the country. An improperly packaged waste drum that blew up forced WIPP to close in 2014.

Hughes said there “may be a few” drums out of more than 20,000 that need to be repackaged to be accepted under WIPP’s new, stricter criteria. “But it will mostly be a paperwork effort, to go back through and make sure the paperwork shows what WIPP is looking for,” he said.

Future purpose

Recently AMWTP completed a nearly $10 million overhaul. It included new robotic arms to smash up waste. Conveyor belts, elevators and other hardware also were replaced. The machinery is used to remotely move waste around the facility for various stages of treatment and packaging.

Officials say the upgrades were necessary to finish the current waste treatment process.

But they also want to keep AMWTP in use after its current mission is done — accepting transuranic waste for treatment from DOE sites around the country. Much of the waste would come from the Hanford Site in Washington and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. AMWTP is the only treatment facility of its kind in the U.S., and already has accepted a handful of outside waste shipments for treatment in recent years.

“There has been an analysis that’s just wrapping up, in terms of potential future uses for that facility,” Zimmerman said.

He said DOE headquarters is expected to issue a decision on AMWTP’s future later this year.

Hughes said a post-2018 purpose for AMWTP was envisioned in the Settlement Agreement.

“It allows us to bring off-site waste in, as long as you treat it within six months, and get it out of the state within six months,” he said.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth