It can come by trucks, trains and even airplanes, from nearly every corner of the country and other parts of the globe.
But eventually, some nuclear waste makes its way to the 890-square-mile expanse of the Department of Energy’s desert site.
The waste isn’t passing through. It’s coming here to be studied, certified and sometimes stored.
And the 1995 Settlement Agreement allows it.
In the past five years, contractors on the site have accepted nuclear waste – about .25 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and more than 400 cubic meters of transuranic waste – from at least eight different states and three different countries.
But it could be more if transporting waste wasn’t so expensive.
Just the containers for shipping high-level waste and used fuel, which maintain shielding from radiation, can cost $1.6 million each, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Idaho National Laboratory can accept spent nuclear fuel to study, but the cost of doing business limits the amount of fuel coming into the Gem State.
“We’re talking typically, for shipping and exams and everything involved in doing this, several million dollars,” said Doug Toomer, director of industry program for INL’s nuclear science and technology directorate. “It’s not like they’re lining up at the gate trying to get in.”
Bringing waste to Idaho
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission’s initial recommendations suggested the state examine the possibility of a pilot interim storage facility at the desert site.
The suggestion has been met with opposition, support and every reaction in between.
But what some may not realize is that the 1995 Settlement Agreement already allows for some storage of nuclear waste at the site.
The state can accept spent fuel for interim storage – from the Navy, other DOE sites, foreign research reactors, university reactors and private companies – over a 40-year period. But all of it must be removed by 2035, according to the agreement.
All transuranic waste – which is made up of things such as clothing and gloves contaminated by nuclear radiation – must be removed no later than Dec. 31, 2018.
Transuranic waste primarily is produced from recycling spent fuel or using plutonium to fabricate nuclear weapons, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Currently, there are 20,000 cubic meters of stored transuranic waste at the Idaho site, said Rick Dale, Idaho Treatment Group spokesman. The group is the contractor in charge of the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project.
As of 2011 – the most recent numbers available — the lab had about 28 metric tons of heavy-metal spent fuel stored on site, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
For some contractors, acceptance of waste is DOE-driven. Others accept waste as long as they meet the waste-removal milestones.
“We’re willing to help out the nation, but we need to make sure we can get waste out of (Idaho) that’s already here,” said Dave Haar, AMWTP waste program manager. “Our waste has to receive priority.”
Although the contractors’ goal is to remove waste from Idaho, each has a different way of dealing with the entities that wish to send waste to the Gem state.
Between 2008 and 2012, AMWTP accepted 1,626 containers of transuranic waste – more than 400 cubic meters – from 15 DOE sites around the nation. The waste is characterized, or treated, before it’s shipped to permanent disposal sites outside Idaho.
The National Transuranic Waste Corporate Board, which includes representatives from all DOE sites where transuranic waste is stored, meets twice a year. The board discusses the most effective way of treating and disposing of the nation’s transuranic waste, Haar said.
“Someone from another site will call, with a particular transuranic waste stream, such as debris waste, and (say): ‘If you can deal with it more efficiently, then I’ll send it to you,’” Haar said.
If AMWTP takes on another site’s transuranic waste, the agreement requires it to be treated and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico within 12 months.
AMWTP’s Supercompactor often entices other sites to bring waste to Idaho, because it can crush 55-gallon drums to a fifth of their original size, making it a good stop on the way to WIPP in New Mexico, he said.
If the project takes on another site’s waste, that site reimburses DOE-Idaho for the work.
“(Processing other sites’ waste) brings more money to DOE’s Idaho site,” Harr said.
Waste from other countries
Idaho’s acceptance of waste from other countries dates back to the 1950s.
Back then, the U.S. and Russia gave a number of countries highly enriched uranium to power research reactors for medicine, physics and energy experiments.
But many of those countries lacked adequate security and were politically unstable.
So, through the Foreign Research Reactor Fuel Return Program, the U.S.
began collecting the fuel originally distributed to 41 countries. The program was started in 1996.
Some of the foreign fuel will be sent to the Savannah River Site. Some of it will be sent to Idaho, where CH2M-WG Idaho LLC, also known as CWI, will store it on site. CWI is the contractor in charge of the Idaho Cleanup Project.
In the past five years, CWI has received shipments from Romania, Mexico and Austria.
“This program is a nonproliferation thing where we can maintain control of U.S. origin material,” CWI’s project engineer Alan Robb said.
Because the U.S. technically owns these countries’ nuclear fuel, the countries can send it back to U.S. for storage.
“We store the fuel in proper storage and maintain it until such a time as the (federal government) finds a repository for it,” Robb said.
Researching others’ fuel
Utility companies that run reactors always are interested in nuclear fuels’ performance and life expectancy.
They may even have a new fuel they want to test.
And INL offers them an option: the lab will take nuclear fuel rods and see how they performed under differing conditions.
But Toomer said few entities take advantage of the opportunity.
The last time research quantities of commercial fuel were sent to Idaho was 2005. Toomer cited the high cost of such research as the problem.
“Industry is selective in what they do because they don’t have unlimited funds,” Toomer said.
But the possibility of testing fuel at INL is there when someone wants to take advantage, he said.
“(Examining fuel) is an important thing they need to have done and our intent is to help support those efforts,” he said.
This fuel would be stored on site if INL ever receives research quantities, Toomer said.
And while many in Idaho feel the state has become a dumping ground for the country’s waste, contractors said it’s very little compared to what already is on site.
“(Accepting this waste) is one of the things Idaho is concerned with,”
Harr said. “But we make sure before we accept anything, that we can process both and get the waste out of Idaho.”
Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755. Comment on this story on Post Talk at www.postregister.com/posttalk/.