Buried radioactive waste removal 80 percent done

Technicians inspect and sort radioactive waste inside Accelerated Retrieval Project No. 8 on the desert site Jan. 23. Excavators uncover the buried waste in an adjacent enclosure before it is dropped off here. Luke Ramseth / lramseth@postregister.com

A worker heads inside the Accelerated Retrieval Project No. 8 building on Jan. 23. Cold War-era nuclear waste is excavated and sorted inside the facility before it leaves the state. Luke Ramseth / lramseth@postregister.com

Editor’s note: Due to a Department of Energy error, the value of a North Wind construction contract was incorrect. The contract is worth $11 million.

U.S. Department of Energy officials say they are ahead of schedule unearthing acres of Cold War-era radioactive waste from a landfill on the desert site.

Since 2005, the DOE and its contractors have dug up about 4.5 acres out of 5.69 acres — or nearly 80 percent — of the waste targeted for removal at the 97-acre Subsurface Disposal Area. The requirement is part of a 2008 cleanup agreement between Idaho, DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency, with a goal of protecting the underlying East Snake Plain Aquifer.

Contractor Fluor Idaho says it expects to finish the removal process well before a 2020 deadline in its contract with the DOE. That’s about two years before DOE was originally scheduled to finish, said Jack Zimmerman, DOE’s Idaho Cleanup Project deputy director.

The transuranic waste was generated at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant outside Denver and buried in Idaho in the 1950s and ’60s. It includes plutonium-laced sludges, graphite materials and filters.

Progress at the Subsurface Disposal Area is a bright spot for the DOE’s Idaho Cleanup Project, which has faced several recent setbacks starting up its Integrated Waste Treatment Unit and shipping transuranic waste out of the state.

Several acres of the landfill are covered with large metal and fabric enclosures. They prevent outside contamination and allow work to continue through the winter months.

The ninth and final enclosure called Accelerated Retrieval Project No. 9 — covering nearly three-quarters of an acre — is expected to be finished by early summer. Idaho Falls-based contractor North Wind Group is building the structure under a DOE contract worth $11 million.

Meanwhile, ARP No. 8 is the only other building where waste still must be removed, a process that is 70 percent complete, said Jason Chapple, a senior project manager.

On a recent afternoon, excavators driven by workers in protective suits could be seen pulling waste from a pit inside the No. 8 enclosure. Using 30 video cameras positioned on the excavators and around the building, workers in a nearby control room identified the waste coming out of the ground as either “target” or “non-target.”

The more radioactive “target” waste was placed on a tray, scooped into a bag, then taken to an adjacent room where technicians sort and package it using special gloves and a protective box. The waste eventually is sealed in 55-gallon steel drums.

The “non-target” waste is put back in the landfill. The removed waste is eventually shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Fluor last summer satisfied a second requirement of the 2008 agreement when it packaged at least 7,485 cubic meters of waste at the Subsurface Disposal Area.

The buried waste exhumation project’s budget this year is almost $22 million. The total project is expected to cost about $1.3 billion, and includes building a soil cap over the landfill in the mid-2020s. The cap is meant to help protect moisture from leaking through to the aquifer. Acres of the landfill’s low-level radioactive and toxic waste will ultimately be left in the ground.

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