An employee at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant west of Idaho Falls inspects barrels of treated transuranic waste that are waiting to be shipped to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.  Courtesy photo - Fluor Idaho

An employee at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant west of Idaho Falls inspects barrels of treated transuranic waste that are waiting to be shipped to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. Courtesy photo - Fluor Idaho

Department of Energy officials are looking into keeping a nuclear waste treatment facility near Idaho Falls open after it is done treating waste that’s already in Idaho so that it can treat more waste from other states. 

Currently the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project is compacting barrels of decades-old transuranic waste stored here before they are shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for permanent storage. The facility, which is located in the desert west of Idaho Falls, is expected to finish processing this waste sometime next year, leading to a question of what it would be used for after that and what will happen to its roughly 700 jobs.

DOE officials are evaluating whether to keep it open to treat more nuclear waste that is currently stored out of state, particularly from the Hanford Site in Washington.

Some advocates for this point to the jobs and to the AMWTP’s unique capabilities — it has the DOE’s only “supercompactor,” which can crush a 55-gallon drum of waste to a fifth of its size. Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters said he is “very supportive” of keeping the AMWTP open after this year.

“These are not off-the-shelf capabilities,” he said at a City Club of Idaho Falls event last week. “These are capabilities we spend a lot of money on as taxpayers.”

Contractor Battelle Energy Alliance manages Idaho National Laboratory.

Fluor Idaho was awarded a five-year cleanup contract for the U.S. Department of Energy’s desert site in 2016. The contract is valued at $1.4 billion.

There are 14 DOE sites with about 11,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste between them that need treatment, and about two-thirds is at Hanford, Brad Christensen, who is on the Idaho Cleanup Project Citizens Advisory Board, wrote in a February column supporting the idea. Christensen pointed to the AMWTP’s location between Hanford and the WIPP. The AMWTP, he wrote, cost about $560 million and building a similar facility elsewhere today would cost about $1 billion.

“At this point there’s nowhere in the country that has the facilities or could handle it with the experience and expertise of the people at AMWTP,” he wrote.

However, questions include whether bringing in new waste could be done within the terms of a 1995 agreement that restricts how long waste can stay in the state.

Earlier this month Energy Department spokesman Brad Bugger told the Associated Press that part of the problem is a backlog of shipments leaving Idaho due to a backlog of receiving them at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which shut down for several years following a 2014 radiation release that contaminated part of that facility.

Wendy Wilson, executive director of Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group, blasted the idea of bringing in more transuranic waste.

“Bringing Hanford’s problems to Idaho is a terrible idea,” she told the Associated Press. “The government’s promise on when they’re going to get it out is not worth very much if they don’t have a place to send it.”

The Citizens Advisory Board discussed the issue at its February meeting and plans to discuss it again in a conference call on March 28.

According to a handout prepared by DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, “initial opportunities under consideration” are repackaging up to 8,500 cubic meters of transuranic waste, mostly from Hanford plus smaller amounts from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and some other smaller sites.

Challenges, the handout says, include funding plus hurdles such as how to package it for shipping. Also, it says, it would require “blanket exception or removal” (and the author underlined this part) of the settlement agreement’s requirement that additional waste shipped into the state must be treated within six months of getting to Idaho and shipped out of the state in the following six months.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who has come under political pressure from some fellow Republicans for his stance on enforcing the 1995 agreement, notably blocking a shipment of spent fuel for research in 2016 because DOE has missed a waste treatment deadline, said he was “open to the possibility of AMWTP treating waste from other sites, so long as terms laid out in the (agreement) are met.”

“The challenge is finding a way to treat that additional waste without it affecting the ongoing cleanup of the existing Idaho waste,” Wasden said in a statement. “The processing and shipment of that material from Idaho remains one of my top priorities.”

Wasden said he was encouraged by recent talks with DOE officials about cleanup and Idaho National Laboratory’s future.

“I look forward to continuing those conversations and am confident we can find a solution that serves the department while also protecting Idaho’s natural resources,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who along with Peters is a co-chairman of the state’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy commission, said he supports looking at the possibility of using the AMWTP to process out-of-state waste.

“I’m very optimistic. … I’m confident we’ll get there,” said Little, who is one of three major GOP candidates for the gubernatorial nomination to succeed C.L. “Butch” Otter. “We need to give these people some confidence that their jobs will be kept here and we’re fully invested in that.”

However, he also believes the first priority should be getting small shipments of spent fuel for research at INL.

“It’s doing things in the right order,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.