In 1989 the Department of Energy set out on a most ambitious but necessary endeavor: the cleanup of 107 sites that bore the environmental legacy of the United States’ work of developing nuclear programs that helped end World War II and the Cold War.

Paul Dabbar

Paul Dabbar

Over the next 30 years, the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management developed and oversaw this undertaking, by tackling a collective area nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. In that time, EM’s projects and efforts have successfully shrunk the original footprint of 107 sites comprising 3,100 square miles by 90% down to 16 sites with an active footprint today of less than 300 square miles. The cleanup involved contaminated soils, groundwater and streams, and demolishing massive enrichment buildings and former research facilities.

Among the achievements at the Idaho National Laboratory Site, the Idaho Cleanup Project has shipped over 60,000 cubic meters of transuranic and mixed low-level waste out of the state for disposal. This volume of waste amounts to 92% of the total inventory of such waste in Idaho. ICP successfully decontaminated, decommissioned and demolished 225 nuclear, radiological, and industrial facilities, as well as removed buried waste from the Subsurface Disposal Area, a 97-acre landfill. ICP also completed the processing of debris waste containing transuranic elements at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant, a one-of-a-kind facility. These activities all support the vital goal of protecting the Snake River Plain Aquifer, the primary drinking and agriculture water source for the region.

Make no mistake, our job is not yet done, and tough challenges remain. Contending with unforeseen situations like the COVID-19 pandemic adds to those challenges, impacting every aspect of life including operations at EM sites. The workforce at the INL Site and other EM locations has demonstrated remarkable resilience during this unprecedented time, adjusting to changing conditions and safely performing activities needed to protect the health and safety of the environment while addressing national security needs.

As the INL site progresses through a phased and deliberate approach towards full activities, the Department’s top priority is the health and safety of its workforce. Enhanced safety protocols that have been instituted during the pandemic will continue as more operations are reinstated, in order to provide adequate protection of the workforce.

I can say with confidence our successes over the last three decades have set the stage for significant progress at each of the 16 DOE sites where work continues — including completing work at several of them. EM remains on the precipice of what will serve as an inflection point across the program.

Earlier this year, DOE released EM Vision 2020 — 2030, A Time of Transition and Transformation, a report that provides a snapshot of major achievements possible by the end of the decade, including those at the INL site.

Most notably, DOE is primed for dramatic progress in facing its largest remaining environmental risk — millions of gallons of radioactive reprocessing waste stored in tanks. Idaho will be at the forefront of this progress. DOE continues to prepare for the startup of the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, a long-planned facility that will turn about 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste into a solid product for disposal. We are targeting completion of this waste treatment by 2028.

Within the next several years, DOE plans to complete buried waste exhumation at the subsurface disposal area. By the end of the decade, we expect to be finishing shipments of legacy transuranic waste out of state. These are just several of the achievements we are planning.

Of course, none of this will be possible without the hard work of our federal and contractor team members, nor without the support of communities surrounding INL, state leaders, Native American tribes and Congress. We view the EM strategic vision as a living document, and we look forward to engaging stakeholders in a continuing dialogue on a common vision for success. As we welcome the new decade, I am confident that with the continued dedication of all who are connected to the INL site, we will keep seeing significant cleanup progress at the site.

Paul Dabbar is the under secretary for science, the Department of Energy’s principal advisor on fundamental energy research, energy technologies and science.

EM Vision 2020 — 2030, A Time of Transition and Transformation can be found at https://bit.ly/3cOuqyM