As a major radioactive waste cleanup milestone was celebrated at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project this week, many are now considering what the future holds for the facility and its 700 employees.
Last week, Fluor Idaho employees finished retrieving some 65,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste from a dirt-covered pile at the facility — a delicate process underway for the past 14 years. Gov. Butch Otter, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and others congratulated employees for the accomplishment at an AMWTP event Thursday.
“Today’s a big day,” Wasden said. “There was a lot of creativity, and a lot of commitment by a lot of people to make this all happen. It’s kudos to the Department of Energy, and the contractors and the crews — they really went out of their way to get this job done.”
Now, federal officials are considering what to do with the AMWTP after 2018, when the facility’s current mission will be mostly complete. A pending DOE report is expected to recommend whether AMWTP should start accepting transuranic waste from DOE sites around the country.
About 8,500 cubic meters of the retrieved waste remains to go through AMWTP’s extensive treatment and repackaging process. The waste is supposed to be shipped out of the state by the end of next year under a state deadline laid out in the 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement with the DOE.
But after that’s done, it’s unknown what will come next. Sue Cange, a DOE deputy assistant secretary, is expected to be briefed on the report in the next few weeks, but it’s not yet known when it will be released to the public.
Wasden said the success seen with the DOE waste retrieval has built “confidence and trust” with state officials, which could “pave the way for future (AMWTP) activities, whatever they may be.”
Susan Burke, Idaho National Laboratory oversight coordinator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said her agency has not received a formal proposal from DOE about the facility’s future use. But it would be something state regulators would consider, she said, as long as the proposal met regulations laid out in the 1995 Settlement Agreement.
“It’s something we’ve done in the past, and it’s something we’d be amenable to doing again,” Burke said.
The idea of shipping transuranic waste from outside Idaho to the AMWTP for treatment isn’t new. It has already been done with about 700 cubic meters of waste over the years. The 1995 Settlement Agreement allows for bringing in a transuranic waste shipment for treatment, as long as it leaves the state within one year.
A 1999 DOE environmental impact statement on the proposed construction of the AMWTP anticipated the possibility that “additional quantities of waste” might come to the facility from 14 other DOE sites around the country. A 2008 DOE analysis recommended sending transuranic waste to AMWTP from sites that “do not have the capability to process this waste.” It also identified waste from 14 sites that could be sent to AMWTP for treatment.
The analysis argued the waste should be shipped to AMWTP “because setting up duplicative characterization or other necessary facilities at other sites would not be practical or cost effective.” AMWTP cost about $560 million to construct.
The facility has capabilities not found elsewhere. It has a remote-controlled supercompactor that smashes 55-gallon steel drums full of waste into three-inch tall “pucks.” Other equipment safely sorts and repackages the waste without putting workers in danger.
Last year, AMWTP underwent an approximately $10 million overhaul. Officials said much of the new equipment was needed to simply finish the job of treating the Idaho waste over the next two years. But the upgrades were also made with an eye toward the future, and bringing in more waste in the coming years from outside the state.
Roughly 20,000 cubic meters of waste could potentially come from the Hanford Site in Washington, according to a 2015 DOE presentation, with roughly 8,000 cubic meters from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and 6,500 from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Other sites have much smaller quantities that could be shipped to the facility.
Herb Bohrer is chairman of the Idaho National Laboratory Citizen’s Advisory Board, and a former DOE director overseeing AMWTP. He said he and the board are “absolutely” supportive of continuing the facility’s mission by accepting outside waste.
“The facility has shown over time that it’s fully capable,” Bohrer said. “It would be a shame not to use it.”