Official: Treatment plant alternatives to be examined at INL

An interior carbon feed skid at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit.
An interior carbon feed skid at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit. Department of Energy

A first-of-its-kind radioactive waste treatment facility in Idaho is set to undergo another round of testing, but doubts continue to be raised about whether it will ever work properly.

The U.S. Department of Energy will examine alternative treatment methods for the 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste that remain stored in aging steel tanks west of Idaho Falls, said Jack Zimmerman, DOE’s deputy manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project.

The Integrated Waste Treatment Unit was supposed to have the job finished in 2012, using steam to transform the liquid into a safer powder form. But the facility has been plagued with clogs and other glitches, and it has been unable to get past the testing phase. It is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

“It is prudent for us to look at (treatment) alternatives,” Zimmerman said at a recent Sun Valley meeting of the INL Site Environmental Management Citizens Advisory Board.

Zimmerman said he was “commissioning a team to look at alternatives.” He said he would ask the team to look at whether significant changes could be made to the current plant to make it work, or what ideal options might be for an entirely different treatment technology and facility.

Zimmerman reiterated, however, that his first priority at this point is still to make the current plant work as originally planned, despite DOE and the contractor facing “a lot” of technical issues.

“Right now, a significant investment has been made in this plant, in this technology,” Zimmerman said.

We’re dealing with a large-scale pilot plant that we’re trying to get up and running.

Jack Zimmerman, Idaho Cleanup Project

After fixing several issues with the plant in the first half of the year, operators began testing again in August. About 8,500 gallons of simulant, a material that mimics real radioactive waste, traveled through the system before the plant had to be powered down once again. Issues were discovered with some filters, a DOE PowerPoint presentation said.

The plant is now back up to normal operating temperature and pressure, officials said, with a simulant run expected to commence in the coming days. The first successful simulant run, late last year, included about 60,000 gallons of the fake radioactive material.

The planned simulant run, similar in scope to the 60,000-gallon test, is expected to take a month to complete, DOE spokeswoman Danielle Miller said in an email.

“Once the simulant run is complete, the department will evaluate plant performance and use that information to determine if an alternative treatment option or modifications to the current process are necessary,” Miller said.

The project’s price tag has gone through many revisions, from $461 million to $571 million and then up even more — way more. At least $90 million in cost overruns have been paid by the project’s contractor, CH2M-WG Idaho, or CWI.

Zimmerman said all costs relating to the plant and ongoing repairs has averaged about $3.5 million to $4 million per month.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, in an October letter sent to DOE officials, wrote that he had recently heard “growing concern among DOE staff as to whether this technology will ever be deemed safe enough to begin treatment of radioactive waste.”

Issues with the treatment facility have affected Idaho National Laboratory’s ability to bring in two shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel it needs for research purposes. One of the shipments was recently sent to another facility.

The Department of Energy is facing a state-mandated deadline of Sept. 30, 2016, to get the plant to a point where it is treating waste. A number of state-mandated cleanup deadlines already have been missed.

When DOE missed a deadline to have the plant operational by the end of last year, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality hit DOE with fines. Natalie Clough, DEQ’s hazardous waste compliance manager, said Thursday that DOE has so far paid the state more than $300,000 in fines.

In addition, Clough said, DOE also is working with DEQ on more than $300,000 worth of supplemental environmental projects to pay down the remainder of what it owes to the state.

If DOE misses the September deadline, however, more state fines will kick in. And if DOE officials decide operation of the plant isn’t feasible, and the department turns to a different treatment technology, it will owe the state $2 million.

Herb Bohrer, chairman of the INL Site Environmental Management Citizens Advisory Board, told the Post Register he doesn’t have much confidence that the plant will ultimately succeed in treating the waste.

“If I were a betting man,” he said, “I wouldn’t bet very much money on it.”