Waste compaction7 February 2005
In the USA a situation has emerged over the last 25 years in which the future of low-level waste disposal is far from certain.
Some things in life are simple; dealing with nuclear waste is not one of them. In the USA, a situation has emerged over the last 25 years in which the future of low-level waste (LLW) disposal is far from certain.
US LLW is divided into three increasingly toxic classes, A, B and C, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires to be isolated from the environment for 100, 300 and 500 years, respectively. Beyond 2008 most US states will have no disposal route for class B and C wastes.
Except for federal LLW from Department of Energy (DoE) and navy propulsion activities, each state is responsible for disposing of low-level waste generated within it.
The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980 provided incentives for US states to develop disposal solutions by allowing the formation of interstate cooperative ‘compacts’. A compact could develop a disposal facility within one of its member states for the exclusive use of its members. The Atomic Energy Act grants further power to states: it allows the NRC to enter into agreement with compacts to transfer some licensing and regulatory responsibilities to states hosting disposal sites.
US states have formed Compacts to manage their low level radioactive wastes
Critics of the compact scheme point out that despite the flexibility it affords states, none have managed to establish a new facility. In fact, the US government has encouraged the development of private facilities since the 1960s with very little success.
Although there are currently 10 compacts (see Figure), only three play host to a commercial disposal site and each of those operates under very different conditions:
- Richland in Washington accepts all classes of waste but only from the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Compacts.
- Envirocare in Utah accepts class A waste from all states except those in the Northwest Compact. This facility can also accept combinations of radioactive and hazardous wastes and takes about 95% of the country’s class A waste.
- Barnwell in South Carolina may accept all classes of waste from the Atlantic Compact as well as 36 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. But the Atlantic Compact plans to close Barnwell’s doors to generators outside the compact from mid-2008.
At current disposal rates, availability of space for class B and C wastes will be adequate until at least mid-2008, when Barnwell closes to non-Atlantic Compact states. Members of the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Compacts will be able to continue using the Richland facility but there will be no provision for wastes from other states.
This situation has long been recognised – but to no effect. The Southwestern, Central Midwest and Midwest Compacts have all suspended their work to develop their own facilities due to political difficulties.
The Central Interstate Compact had hoped to develop a disposal route in its member state of Nebraska. This effort led only to a courtroom battle after Nebraska refused to licence a site following a multi-million dollar characterisation project. Eventually, Nebraska was ejected from the compact and ordered to refund other member states a total of $140 million.
In Texas, despite the rejection of a disposal site licence application in 1998, the possibility of expanding an LLW storage site in Andrews county has been raised. Waste Control Specialists currently store up to 7080m3 and a decision is imminent on expanding that to 425,000m3. It is reportedly intended that the new facility would include two storage areas: one for the use of the Texas Compact and another for federal wastes.
Envirocare was given a conditional licence in 2001 to accept the more active class B and C wastes, but this is subject to immediate cancellation if either the Utah state legislature or governor disapprove of the change in use.
Sadly for US class B and C producers, Utah’s governor Jon Huntsman is “adamantly opposed” to the idea. When running for election in 2003, Huntsman said: “If elected governor, I shall use the full force of my office to oppose all efforts to bring into our state any radioactive waste other than what is currently permitted. This includes those levels classified as B and C waste.”
According to site operators, something like 340,000m3 of LLW were disposed of in 2003, twice as much as in 1999. The surge in waste is a result of the DoE’s cleanup push – 78% of class A waste comes from the DoE. Most of this goes to commercial facilities, in particular Envirocare, simply because that method is cheaper than using the DoE’s own facilities. This is symptomatic of the hands-off policy taken by government.
In a June 2004 report, Low-level radioactive waste: Disposal availability adequate in the short term, but oversight needed to identify any future shortfalls, the General Accounting Office (GAO) complained that management of LLW “continues to be a concern despite two-decade-old federal legislation.”
GAO authors complained that federal oversight of LLW disposal has all but ended and suggest that the situation should be monitored by the NRC, who could report to Congress if intervention were necessary. But the NRC thinks that responsibility would be outside their health and safety remit and would be better carried out by the DoE.
In compiling the report, the GAO had to use disposal data from site operators because the Manifest Information Management System database kept by the DoE “lacked data” and was “not up to date” enough on LLW movements. GAO authors complained of “discrepancies between amounts of waste operators claimed to have disposed of and that which the DoE recorded as accepted.” Further, wastes were attributed to states from which they did not originate.
Weak control of the data inspired the GAO to recommend that the DoE stops releasing the information until internal controls can be improved. Unfortunately, that course of action would put the DoE in violation of is obligations under the 1980 National Low-Level Waste Policy Act and leave many states with no source of LLW information.
The DoE’s own sites in Nevada and Washington have a combined remaining capacity of 4.8 million m3 of which the DoE estimates it will require only 850,000m3 for its cleanup activities. The use of this space for commercial waste would require new legislation but it may be possible to lease part of a disposal site. The GAO even said that with such a large excess capacity at federal sites, they may be no incentive for any new facility.
So, at the moment, it seems that there will probably be no easy disposal route for most states’ B and C waste after 2008 but this does not pose an immediate problem: waste generators will be able to employ minimisation, processing and temporary storage until a new facility is created or the rules change. At the moment the NRC sets no limit on and does not centrally track waste volumes in storage, but the possibility of large masses of radioactive waste in storage across the country may not be popular.
FilesClose-up view of the USA's interstate CompactsTablesRichland Barnwell Envirocare