State fines stack up over nuke waste plant

The Denitration Mineralization Reformer is one piece of machinery inside the first-of-its-kind Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at Idaho National Laboratory’s desert site. The facility, built to treat 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste, has struggled for years to get past the testing phase. Courtesy CWI

Idaho continues to fine the U.S. Department of Energy $3,600 per day for ongoing problems with its radioactive waste treatment facility.

DOE has accrued more than $300,000 in state fines since missing an Oct. 1 deadline related to starting up the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit. DOE officials have tried unsuccessfully to convince the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to delay or waive the penalties.

“We reaffirmed our position that we found the stipulated penalties were appropriate, and would continue to be assessed,” Natalie Creed, DEQ’s hazardous waste compliance manager, said this week.

DOE and its contractors — previously CH2M-WG Idaho, now Fluor Idaho — for years have been unable to start the facility as promised because of chemical and equipment difficulties. Officials say Fluor is making good progress toward fixing the plant. But many months appear to remain before it’s ready to start treating 900,000 gallons of radioactive sodium-bearing waste that resides in three underground stainless steel tanks.

Federal officials say the tanks are not at risk of leaking, despite being more than 50 years old. But DEQ officials want them emptied as soon as possible, as a leak could threaten the Snake River Plain Aquifer. The state fines are levied at a rate of $1,200 per tank, per day.

Total federal costs related to the treatment facility stand at approximately $785 million, DOE spokeswoman Danielle Miller said this week. That’s more than $200 million over budget. The total cost has increased by as much as $5 million per month. CH2M-WG Idaho paid at least another $90 million out of its own pocket related to the cost overruns before handing the project off to Fluor in June.

DEQ and DOE officials have held several meetings and exchanged letters regarding the treatment facility fines in recent months, Creed said. While DEQ is encouraged by the progress Fluor is making on the project, she said, it has refused to waive the fines. Under an agreement negotiated last year, DOE was supposed to have the facility operational by the end of September, with waste treatment complete by the end of 2018.

On April 1, the state penalties will increase from $3,600 to $6,000 per day. Around that time, DOE and DEQ will agree on how the department will pay off its first 180 days of penalties, Creed said. It could choose to fund “supplemental environmental projects” in lieu of paying the full amount in cash.

When DOE missed a previous deadline on the project at the end of 2014, it agreed to pay down a portion of its $648,000 in fines by funding four supplemental environmental projects around the state. Two of those projects are still underway. One involves paying to switch out old wood stoves in Salmon with cleaner-burning versions. The other is a Nature Conservancy stream restoration project at the Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey.

In letters sent to DEQ Director John Tippets this fall, DOE’s Idaho Cleanup Project Deputy Director Jack Zimmerman asked the agency to consider not assessing the fines, due to provisions of the agreement that said DOE wouldn’t be fined if an “upset or breakdown” required treatment to be stopped. But Tippets replied in a Sept. 23 letter that waste treatment never started, and current issues with the facility are mostly the same as previous ones that caused the missed 2014 deadline.

In an Oct. 31 letter to Zimmerman — after Zimmerman had again appealed for DEQ to reconsider the fines — Tippets reaffirmed DEQ’s intention to keep them in place: “We do not intend to reduce, hold in abeyance, toll, or waive any fines or penalties provided for under the terms of the (agreement),” he wrote.

Several problems have plagued the 53,000-square-foot plant. One is the accumulation of a substance called “wall scale,” which looks like tree bark, inside the facility’s main processing vessel. Another problem is associated with replacing a faulty component called a “ring header.” There also have been issues with an “auger/grinder” component. The facility is intended to turn the liquid waste into a safer powder form.

Creed said she and other DEQ officials are encouraged by the forward progress Fluor is making on fixing the issues. It has enlisted experts from private industry and national laboratories, and recently began testing at a smaller-scale facility in Colorado. Fluor officials were not available this week for a more in-depth explanation of the progress.

Fluor appears to have a “more methodical” approach than the previous contractor, Creed said.

“It’s very thorough,” she said. “They’re pulling on a lot of expertise from around the country. We’re seeing some positive differences there.”

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