In 2008, the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit was hailed as the “centerpiece of the entire cleanup project” by a contractor spokesman.
“The rest of the department will be watching what happens here very closely,” a top U.S. Department of Energy official told the Post Register at the time.
Seven years later — and eight years after construction of the $571 million facility began — the first-of-its-kind radioactive waste treatment unit still can’t get past the testing phase.
A revised timeline, recently agreed to by the DOE and Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality, indicates it could be more than a year before radioactive waste treatment is underway.
But some worry the facility’s complex design might have been flawed from the get-go and it never will successfully treat the nearly 900,000 gallons of liquid sodium-bearing waste. Other available treatment technologies, they say, would have finished the job years ago.
“It’s failure after failure. You’re trying to do something that’s extremely difficult, and unnecessarily difficult,” said Darryl Siemer, a former Idaho Cleanup Project chemist and a vocal opponent of the treatment unit’s technology.
Total costs for the 53,000-square-foot facility 50 miles west of Idaho Falls have risen to $715 million, according to a recent DOE estimate. The project’s contractor, CH2M-WG Idaho, or CWI, has paid another $90 million in cost overruns. Millions of dollars more are spent on the project each month, documents show.
Originally, the project was estimated to cost $461 million.
And new problems continue to crop up. But DOE and contractor officials say they aren’t ready to start looking at other options just yet.
“I think the technology can work if they can get all the pieces to work together,” said Brian English, a hazardous waste scientist with Idaho DEQ.
A number of state-mandated cleanup deadlines, starting in 2012, have been missed because of the treatment unit delays. And the DOE and its contractor, CWI, are beginning to feel the consequences.
Last month, Idaho DEQ handed down a $648,000 fine to the DOE for missing a Dec. 31 treatment deadline.
In addition, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said Idaho National Laboratory will not be allowed to bring in two lucrative shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel rods for research purposes until the waste treatment unit is operational.
Still, state regulators are being careful not to rush DOE or contractor CWI. Should the unit break down midway through treatment of radioactive waste, repairs would be far more costly and time-consuming, officials said, as well as potentially dangerous.
“I want them to have time to (finish) without rushing,” English said.
His message: Find and solve all the problems — now.
NEW TIMELINE SET
The facility was supposed to be finished treating the 900,000 gallons by the end of 2012. But every time testing began, the facility rumbled to a stop due to pressurization issues, clogs or other mechanical breakdowns.
From 2012 through 2014, DOE and CWI blew past five state-mandated deadlines, all tied to the treatment unit.
One of the deadlines, under the 1995 Settlement Agreement, also known as the Batt Agreement, required all liquid waste treatment to be completed, and the tanks closed, by the end of 2012.
After a Dec. 31, 2014, deadline was missed, the DEQ announced daily fines. Eventually, the daily fines were renegotiated to include either one lump sum fine of $648,000, or completing a “supplemental environmental project” as a way to pay back the state.
“Further delays are of critical concern,” the January DEQ notice of violation said.
Natalie Clough, DEQ’s hazardous waste compliance manager, said there have been no known releases from the storage tanks, located in a concrete vault. If a leak did occur, however, there is no secondary containment system. An empty tank does sit nearby, in case of an emergency.
Following negotiations between the state and DOE last month, a new compliance schedule is set. That schedule requires DOE to begin waste treatment by Sept. 30, 2016. And this time, the department will have more than two years, until the end of 2018, to finish the job.
More talks are planned this week as the DOE decides whether to pay the $648,000 fine or propose an environmental project, Clough said.
“While there is a great deal of focus on IWTU right now because the facility is behind schedule, the public should know that DOE has been successful in meeting the vast majority of milestones associated with the (1995) Idaho Settlement Agreement,” DOE spokeswoman Danielle Miller said in an emailed statement.
In January, treatment unit operators reached a big milestone by completing a first round of testing. Testing includes circulating steam, water and simulant — material that mimics real radioactive waste — through the treatment system. Since that time, the facility has been in a scheduled “outage” period.
Documents obtained by the Post Register through a public records request detail a number of issues with the plant that came to light after the first round of testing.
Clogs have occurred inside the system, including a formation that resembles tree bark. If bark formed during real waste treatment, one report said, the plant would require frequent shutdowns for cleaning.
A number of other mechanical hiccups also have surfaced.
“Due to complexities of the process, many difficulties have been encountered during testing to this point, and more are possible,” an October IWTU startup assurance plan said.
Another round of testing will occur soon. Additional testing likely will be needed after that, state and DOE officials have said.
The continued delays come at a high price.
According to information in a DOE presentation obtained by the Post Register, from $1.5 million to $5 million is spent on the facility each month. During outages, which have been frequent since the facility’s completion, it’s $5 million a month.
Still, the DOE pointed out that halting operations midway through radioactive treatment would be far more costly — as much as $10 million per month.
“While the facility is behind schedule, we remain focused on a disciplined and methodical startup to make sure that once we start treating radioactive waste, we will be doing it safely and efficiently,” Miller said.
WILL IT EVER WORK?
The series of malfunctions and other testing problems have led some to question whether the unique facility will ever be able to safely treat the waste.
As part of the recent state-imposed fine, environmental regulators addressed that very possibility. If operation of the treatment unit “is not feasible,” DEQ officials wrote, the DOE must pay the state $2 million.
However, there have not yet been any serious discussions, either internally or with the DOE, about what a Plan B might look like if the facility cannot do the job, state officials said.
“We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” Clough said.
DOE officials also aren’t yet considering another option for treatment.
“The results of the initial simulant run indicate that the process is appropriate for sodium-bearing waste treatment, and therefore the department is not planning to examine any other treatment options at this time,” Miller said in the email.
Siemer, the former Idaho Cleanup Project chemist, opposed the steam-reforming treatment technology even while he was employed at the site. He continues to follow the facility’s progress closely, frequently calling it a “boondoggle.”
Asked whether he thought the treatment unit would succeed, Siemer said, “It depends on how much time and money you’re willing to throw at it.
“They were not really prepared to implement this (treatment) process. It was all based on hope that there will never be any problems.”
Siemer and others say there were better treatment options on the table in the early 2000s, when the planning process began.
One would have been to use the already existing “calciner” treatment facility. The calciner burned about 8 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid wastes at the site over its nearly 20-year lifetime, turning them into a safer powder form.
But it was closed in 2000 due to concerns by environmental groups and state regulators about the yellow-orange plume emanating from its stack. It also had gone for years without a proper hazardous waste permit.
Still, Siemer and others say the calciner likely would have finished treating the final 900,000 gallons of waste within another year. And upgrades could have been made to meet proper environmental standards before continuing treatment.
“If we had immediately calcined it, as we should have, there would not have been much to do,” Siemer said.
Vitrification was another treatment option put forth by the DOE. It would have melted the liquid waste into a ceramic solid. An informal bid for a vitrification facility was drafted by a company called Duratek (eventually purchased by Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions) in 2005.
Duratek estimated total costs to build a facility and treat the waste at approximately $77 million.
But vitrification already had garnered a bad name by 2005. A significantly larger and more complex vitrification plant at DOE’s Hanford site had been mired in delays and skyrocketing costs for several years.
Beatrice Brailsford, a member of the environmental watchdog group Snake River Alliance, also has followed the treatment unit’s progress from the beginning.
Brailsford said she can recall early discussions of several treatment technologies.
“I think everybody hopes it’s going to work,” she said. “(But) I don’t think it’s a sure bet that IWTU is ever going to start up to clean the waste.”
Herb Bohrer, chairman of the INL Site Environmental Management Citizens Advisory Board and a former site employee, said he, too, has doubts about the facility.
“There’s always that concern that in the end, it might not work the way it should,” Bohrer said.
“How many more trial runs with issues that come up … before you start to think you’ve bought into a failed system?” he said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. But you wonder if next year, at this same time, if we’re still in this same spot.”