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What Will Happen to "Orphan" Nuclear Waste?

In addition to the problems of safely characterizing, transporting, and disposing of transuranic (plutonium-contaminated) wastes from producing nuclear weapons, the U.S. has large quantities of much more radioactive wastes than those currently being shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). More than 90 percent of the trillions of curies of radioactivity in those wastes is in spent (irradiated) fuel from nuclear power plants. That waste and Department of Energy (DOE) high-level waste is supposed to go to the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, which was to have opened in 1998. That site has been delayed by technical problems and effective opposition from the State of Nevada over the last 20 years, since Congress chose the site because Nevada was the politically weakest state with sites then being considered.

Other waste types include uranium tailings, which are very large volumes of mostly uranium left from mining and milling uranium. Those wastes are generally disposed at the generating site or at some relatively nearby location. “Low-level” wastes are generally disposed in shallow burial under a few feet of dirt. However, some “low-level” wastes are considered too radioactive for shallow burial. Such “Greater Than Class C” (GTCC) waste have no designated disposal site. On July 20, 2007, DOE announced the start of a multi-year process to determine how to dispose of GTCC and “GTCC-like” wastes that are expected to contain more than 140 million curies, or more 10 times the amount of radioactivity in all of the wastes that are to be disposed at WIPP.

GTCC waste comes from commercial nuclear power plants. Virtually all of the projected 110 million curies of GTCC would come from “activated metals” from the 122 operating or decommissioned plants. Metals in and around the nuclear reactors become intensely radioactive after decades of operations. Since the majority of the U.S. nuclear power plants are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to operate until at least 2030, DOE is projecting that 870 cubic meters of GTCC waste would need to be disposed by 2062.

GTCC waste is more highly radioactive the class A, B, and C “low-level” radioactive wastes (LLW). In 2005, more than 4 million cubic feet (approximately 117,000 cubic meters) of LLW was disposed at the three U.S. shallow land burial sites at Clive, Utah (Envirocare), Barnwell, South Carolina, and Richland, Washington. More than 98 percent of the volume is class A waste, virtually all of which was disposed at Envirocare. However, that volume contained less than one percent of the radioactivity of the LLW that was disposed in 2005. More than 98 percent of the radioactivity was disposal at Barnwell, which accepts class A, B, and C waste.

The Envirocare license from the State of Utah currently allows only class A waste, though Energy Solutions, the owner of the site, has tried to expand the types of waste allowed. Because the LLW disposal sites use shallow burial, none of them are among the sites that DOE is considering for GTCC waste, which is more radioactive and is required to have greater protection.

In the Low-Level Waste Policy Act of 1985, Congress mandated that the federal government would be responsible for GTCC waste disposal. Because DOE had done very little to deal with GTCC waste, in Section 631 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress required DOE to designate “an entity within [DOE] to have the responsibility of completing activities needed to provide a facility for safely disposing” GTCC waste, to provide a report to Congress on “all alternatives,” and to “await action by Congress.”

DOE’s July 20 announcement began scoping for the draft and final environmental impact statement (EIS) for GTCC. In that announcement, DOE identified five alternatives. First, “no action,” which is required in any EIS, and which would leave the waste generally as it is. Second, disposal at WIPP. Third, disposal at Yucca Mountain. Fourth, disposal at a “new enhanced near-surface facility” at an existing DOE site – Idaho National Laboratory, Los Alamos (NM) National Lab, Nevada Test Site, Savannah River Site (SC), Oak Ridge Reservation (TN), Hanford (WA) -- near WIPP, or some to-be-identified commercial facility. Fifth, disposal at a “new intermediate depth borehole facility” at those same sites.

DOE also is including “GTCC-like” waste, which that agency owns or generates and which is not designated for disposal at WIPP, Yucca Mountain, or DOE’s LLW sites at the Nevada Test Site and Hanford. Since DOE is not regulated by NRC, its “GTCC-like” waste includes both “activated metals” from its now closed nuclear reactors that are similar to GTCC waste, and two other types of waste -- sealed sources and “other.” Sealed sources are relatively small containers of radionuclides that are used by private industry in medicine and oil and gas pipelines, among many other purposes. Many of those sources are LLW, not GTCC waste, but there is no current inventory of exactly how many sealed sources are “GTCC-like” waste. By 2035, DOE projects that they would be about 1,700 cubic meters by volume and about 2.4 million curies of radioactivity.

But by far the largest volume and radioactivity of “GTCC-like” waste is “other.” Virtually all of the current inventory is not LLW, but rather transuranic waste that is not legally allowed at WIPP, which is only for nuclear weapons waste. More than 75 percent of the volume and more than 99 percent of the radioactivity is at West Valley, NY, the nation’s only commercial reprocessing site. Of the additional projected future inventory, about 37 percent of the volume and 16 percent of the radioactivity would be from West Valley decontamination and decommissioning. The major source of additional projected “GTCC-like” waste is the Radioisotope Power Systems (RPS) project, which provides the electrical power supplies for some outer space satellites and some weapons. More than 60 percent of the volume and more than 80 percent of the radioactivity projected in “GTCC-like” waste would come from the RPS.

Since more than 90 percent of all the radioactivity in the GTCC EIS inventory is or would be from commercial nuclear power plants or reprocessing at West Valley, there are fundamental equity issues regarding whether DOE sites that already bear the long-term legacy of contamination from the past 60 years of nuclear weapons production should also handle the commercial waste. Moreover, the current U.S. government programs to subsidize construction of new nuclear power plants would result in much more GTCC waste than is included in the projected inventory, thus expanding the magnitude of the waste problem.

Many citizens oppose the proposed alternatives and, instead, advocate that DOE consider another alternative – Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS). More than 140 citizen groups supported HOSS in testimony given by Public Citizen before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee in September 2006. Additional groups have signed on since that time. HOSS would provide improved engineered storage at or near the waste generation site for decades, while ensuring ongoing independent monitoring so that potential leaks or other problems are detected and large releases are prevented. Such facilities could handle both spent fuel and GTCC waste and better safeguard the wastes from accidents or terrorist attacks that could release large amounts of radioactivity.

People from around the country should provide comments for the GTCC EIS, and be involved in the ongoing process to determine what happens with this “orphan” waste and how much such waste is produced in the future.

– Don Hancock

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