Construction on the 53,000-square-foot Integrated Waste Treatment Unit started in 2007.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct information about when the Department of Energy was to treat the liquid waste.

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BOISE — After years of delay, the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit may start processing the 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste at the U.S. Department of Energy’s desert site west of Idaho Falls within the year.

When the treatment process is done in a few years, the DOE will have to grapple with the same question it recently dealt with at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project — what to do with the facility once the waste it is meant to treat is gone.

Idaho Cleanup Project Deputy Manager Jack Zimmerman updated the state’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission on Wednesday. Zimmerman told the commission about a successful test run in August, and said another 50-day simulant run is expected soon.

“It’s the last step in proving that we can achieve sustained operations for the IWTU,” he told the commission, which met at the state Capitol.

If everything goes well, Zimmerman said the IWTU could be processing waste by the end of the year.

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DOE was supposed to treat the liquid waste by 2012, but technical problems at the IWTU have held it up. The delay matters, because the DOE is now years behind on the deadline set in the 1995 Settlement Agreement between the state and federal government to get the liquid waste processed and out of state. The impasse has led Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to block shipments of small amounts of spent research fuel. Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters told lawmakers Tuesday that the delay could endanger INL’s status as America’s leading nuclear energy laboratory, the Associated Press reported.

Wasden thanked Zimmerman for his work Wednesday.

“I wanted to publicly state how much I appreciate the dedicated effort you have put forth on this matter,” he said.

“I appreciate the patience and I think we’re nearing the end,” Zimmerman replied.

Zimmerman said it will take about three years to process the 900,000 gallons of waste, using a steam-reforming technology to turn it from liquid into a solid, granular material. After that is done, Zimmerman said he doesn’t expect the facility to be reused to process the same kind of waste, although DOE is considering repurposing the facility to process different types of waste.

“We really don’t see any (reuse),” he said. “This waste is kind of unique in the complex. ... You think it’s hard moving transuranic waste that’s solid, it’s impossible to move ... high-level waste that’s liquid.”

Zimmerman said the AMWTP will likely be done processing the solid transuranic waste there soon. The original goal was December 2018, and Zimmerman said “that’s going to be missed by just a few months.”

DOE looked at keeping the eastern Idaho facility open to process similar waste from other DOE sites, mainly the one in Hanford, Wash., but decided against it due to the cost and transportation problems. This leaves an uncertain future for the facility’s 700 employees. About half of them work in cleanup and their jobs will be eliminated after the waste processing is done, although DOE officials have said many of the workers are expected to be able to find work in other DOE or INL-related functions.

The commission also heard a presentation from Betsy Forinash, director of the DOE’s National Transuranic Waste Program, on the report that led the DOE to decide to close the AMWTP rather than bring in more waste. Forinash said it would cost DOE $3.5 million a month to keep the facility open but idling while waste was packaged to bring there, plus costing hundreds of millions at Hanford and the other sites to package and ship the waste to Idaho.

“You’re going to spend $75 million more in the first couple years to process waste at the AMWTP rather than sending it directly for disposal at (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico),” she said.

Wednesday’s meeting also was the first for several new members of the commission, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin. Bobbi-Jo Meuleman, who is Gov. Brad Little’s director of intergovernmental affairs, is the commission’s new co-chairwoman. She replaces Little, who was the co-chairman as lieutenant governor and took a strong interest in Idaho National Laboratory issues.

Meuleman said Little plans to issue an executive order in the next couple of months extending the commission’s existence.

“The continuation of the LINE Commission is very important for him,” she said. “So, he has decided to bring the LINE Commission back into his personal office.”

Little visited and spoke briefly Wednesday, thanking the commission’s members and urging them to help spread the word about INL’s work.

“We know what your footprint is in Bonneville County and Butte County, but the rest of the state needs to know the great work that’s taking place at the lab,” he said.

“What a great gem it is, not only for southeast Idaho but for all of our state and our nation,” McGeachin said.

Editor's note: The U.S. Department of Energy was supposed to start treating 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit in 2012. This article has been corrected to state that.

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

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