The U.S. Department of Energy most likely will miss another key milestone next year in its nuclear waste cleanup agreement with the state of Idaho.
Under the 1995 Settlement Agreement, DOE committed to remove from the state some 65,000 cubic meters of stored transuranic waste before the end of 2018. The waste goes to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which recently reopened following a radiation accident three years ago.
But due to WIPP’s long closure, its ongoing limited operations, and the vast amount of treated waste that has accumulated in Idaho, it appears impossible that DOE will meet the Dec. 31, 2018 deadline. Officials acknowledged the problem Tuesday during a Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission meeting in Boise.
“Certainly the milestone is at risk; it’s at great risk right now,” said Jack Zimmerman, DOE’s deputy manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project.
Zimmerman told the commission there are more than 900 certified shipments stored at the site’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, and additional waste will be certified in the coming months.
But with WIPP’s shipment schedule limited due to ongoing repairs, DOE won’t be able to send even half the shipments currently certified in Idaho before the deadline.
“We have more to ship than we can get out by the end of 2018,” said Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper, who serves on the commission. Idaho could “dominate” the shipping schedule and DOE would still miss the deadline, she said.
Starting this month, WIPP operators started burying waste stored above the repository, a process expected to take three months. In late spring, the facility expects to accept waste shipments from DOE sites around the country, but at a limited schedule of five shipments per week, down from at least 17 before the accident.
Todd Shrader, DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office manager, said in an interview posted on DOE’s website Tuesday that shipments will begin at fewer than five per week and gradually “ramp up.”
“We have a new normal at WIPP now, based on the program changes and safety enhancements,” he said.
The first of two unrelated accidents at WIPP in February 2014 involved a salt haul truck that caught fire. That was followed by a drum of waste bursting open and spewing radioactive material, exposing several workers to low levels of radiation. The resulting closure for decontamination and repair caused a massive backlog of radioactive waste shipments around the country. Officials say the facility won’t be operating at full-speed until 2021, after a new ventilation system is completed.
Next month, DOE officials will meet to lay out a shipping schedule from the 14 DOE sites that have transuranic waste. Idaho has more waste than any other site, and prior to the accident was consistently sending the most waste to WIPP.
“I fully expect we will be a priority,” Zimmerman told the commission. “But when you’re talking five shipments, there’s not much to prioritize. I don’t think Idaho is gong to get 100 percent of those shipments. I don’t think it would be feasible.”
Casper suggested Idaho should be guaranteed first priority because it has “milestones at risk.”
DOE has missed Settlement Agreement milestones before. Due to WIPP’s closure, it remains out of compliance with a requirement to ship 2,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste out of the state annually.
Most well-known is the department’s failure to treat some 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing radioactive waste by a 2012 deadline. That missed milestone continues to cause DOE headaches, as Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has prevented shipments of spent nuclear fuel to Idaho National Laboratory until treatment begins.
Missing the 2018 milestone could further complicate INL’s ongoing struggle to bring in the spent fuel for research purposes.
“DOE has informed us that shipment of INL transuranic waste to WIPP is one of the highest priorities after emplacement of material currently housed above ground at WIPP,” Wasden said in an email. He said he encouraged DOE to “aggressively address” issues preventing full operations at WIPP, to allow DOE to meet its 2018 obligation.
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus — who along with former Gov. Phil Batt hammered out the Settlement Agreement — said he was keeping an eye on the 2018 milestone being in jeopardy.
“Every one of those deadlines should be a concern to a lot of people,” he told the Post Register.
In this case, he said the problem was not with DOE-Idaho, but with “DOE incompetency” in New Mexico that led to the initial WIPP accident.
“But the biggest, most major concern we have right now is the 900,000 gallons of liquid sodium-bearing liquid waste buried in old, old waste containers over the aquifer,” Andrus said. “That is the critical element (of the agreement) that we face each day.”
Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth