Shipments resume

A semitruck loaded with radioactive waste leaves the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project with the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 in the background in this April, 2017 file photograph. The shipment is headed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, N.M. for storage.

Processing the nuclear waste in Hanford, Wash., at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment project would have cost $75 million more than processing it in Hanford, according to a U.S. Department of Energy study analyzing whether to keep the AMWTP open.

The DOE announced recently it would close the AMWTP, which is located in the desert west of Idaho Falls, sometime next year after it finishes its current mission processing the decades-old transuranic waste that is in Idaho now. The roughly 6,100 cubic meters of transuranic waste at Hanford will be processed on-site rather than shipped to Idaho for processing.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson added a clause to a budget bill earlier this year ordering DOE to evaluate the costs and benefits of keeping the AMWTP open versus processing the Hanford waste in Washington state.

“It is a large facility that is designed to process a high volume of waste, and it costs a lot to have it stand idle at all,” said a DOE official speaking on background. “You’re talking millions of dollars a month to staff it and keep it active.”

According to the DOE official, they found much of the waste in Hanford could be shipped directly to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for permanent storage. Challenges with transporting the rest, the official said, would have included safety and technical issues with packaging and shipping the waste to Idaho, allocating funding from elsewhere in the DOE budget, working with the Western Governors Association, and complying with the 1995 Settlement Agreement between the state and the federal government, which says any new waste brought into Idaho must be processed and out of the state within a year.

“We took a really hard look at this,” the official said. “We think it’s a great facility. It’s done a great job. We took a really hard look to see if we can make it work. It’s disappointing to us as well that it’s not.”

The report concluded bringing in waste from Hanford and elsewhere “will be challenging and will not be cost-effective in the short-term nor likely cost-effective in the long-term.” It said there is “considerable uncertainty” about whether the waste could be successfully packaged for transport, and that it would take a year or two to solve this issue, thereby contributing the $3.5 million monthly standby costs of keeping the AMWTP open.

While most of the waste that would have been processed at AMWTP is in Hanford, there are smaller amounts at some other DOE sites. DOE hasn’t decided what will happen to that waste yet.

“We’re going to keep working on those,” the official said.

Some public officials in the Idaho Falls area and in Butte County publicly supported keeping the AMWTP running, worried about the impact of losing the roughly 700 jobs at the plant. However, some worried about the risks of bringing the waste to Idaho and wondered whether DOE could process it here while also complying with the 1995 Settlement Agreement. The nuclear watchdog group the Snake River Alliance led the ”Don’t Waste Idaho” coalition that opposed bringing in more out-of-state waste.

“I think it’s a very good decision,” said Beatrice Brailsford, the Snake River Alliance’s nuclear program director. “It certainly responds to the concerns that the people of Idaho have expressed about waste coming in from other places. I know it’s a good economic and environmental decision.”

About half of the people working at the AMWTP work in waste treatment, and those jobs will go away next year, although it is expected some of them will transition into other jobs either at Idaho National Laboratory or with cleanup contractor Fluor. The other half work in waste characterization and certification, and they will still have work.

“That function is going to remain in operation at the site,” the DOE official said.

The closure won’t have any direct impact on INL, although some of the people who work at the AMWTP might get jobs at INL, said INL spokeswoman Sarah Neumann.

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