7 February 1999

Yucca Mountain a “promising” site Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert is a “promising” site for a permanent, underground repository for spent fuel and high-level waste, the Department of Energy said late last year.

The DOE urged that scientific studies proceed to support a decision in 2001 on whether to recommend the site to the White House. If the President approves, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues a construction permit, actual work on the repository could then begin.

Following construction and the issuance of an NRC operating licence, the DOE would use the repository to store spent fuel from commercial nuclear plants and high-level defence waste.

The DOE dismissed the significance of a study published recently in Nature magazine showing that traces of plutonium from underground nuclear weapons tests in Nevada 30 years ago had migrated nearly a mile through groundwater. Instruments found minute amounts of plutonium in test wells and concluded that the plutonium had flowed downstream on colloids – potentially a new pathway to the environment.

However, DOE said the findings would have no impact, since the migration rate would not violate standards for the repository. Prof Bruce Honeyman of the Colorado School of Mines, said the nature of colloids (eg their extremely small size and low concentrations) guarantee that they could never be transport vehicles for radiation.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the US nuclear industry’s trade association in Washington DC, called the long-awaited DOE report on Yucca Mountain’s viability “a major milestone.” Scientific study of Yucca Mountain has been under way for 15 years, the institute noted.

Joe Colvin, the NEI’s president and chief executive officer, said the DOE report’s conclusions kick the long-running nuclear waste disposal controversy over to the White House. The Clinton Administration has long demanded that Congress wait until the Yucca Mountain viability assessment was complete before acting on legislation to build an interim storage facility in Nevada, Colvin noted. The interim facility would hold the spent fuel in above-ground dry casks until the permanent repository is ready to receive it.

Colvin added that three recent rulings by the US Court of Federal Claims suggest the federal government may be held liable for huge damages for its failure to remove spent nuclear fuel stored at US commercial nuclear power plant sites by 31 January 1998. DOE missed that deadline and has defaulted on contracts it signed with US nuclear utilities following enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983.

“These [court] rulings are momentous because American consumers have paid more than $15 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund for waste disposal services and still do not have a permanent disposal facility. If the federal government’s foot-dragging continues, US taxpayers will be one step closer to paying a bill of as much as $56 billion to cover DOE’s default,” Colvin said. “The rulings also make it increasingly clear that the Energy Department needs to immediately begin meeting its responsibility for moving used fuel.” Both houses of the recently adjourned 105th US Congress approved building an interim storage facility in Nevada, but the legislation died because supporters did not have the necessary two-thirds majority to overcome a threatened White House veto.

Nearly identical legislation has already been reintroduced in the 106th Congress by Representatives Fred Upton (Republican-Michigan) and Edolphus Towns (Democrat-New York). The bipartisan new bill, The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999, features only several minor technical changes related to the budget process.

Pilot test melter for vitrifying Hanford waste makes a start GTS Duratek has started up a pilot melter at its Columbia, Maryland, headquarters to test equipment and processes to be used for radioactive waste clean-up for the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Hanford Tank Waste Remediation System Project (TWRS). The pilot test melter uses the company’s proven vitrification technology for fusing contaminants in durable, ecologically safe glass. It is one-third the size of the low-level melters planned for the TWRS facility to be built at DOE’s Hanford Site near Richland, Washington.

The test melter will be used as a non-hazardous, non-radioactive system as its purpose is to test out new aspects of the design for the full scale units before completing designs and beginning construction. For example, the test melter has three different discharge chambers that will be evaluated (see photo).

GTS Duratek is a member of a team led by BNFL Inc which won the Hanford TWRS contract in August 1998, the nation’s largest environmental clean-up project. The team also includs Bechtel and SAIC. The contract involves treating and immobilising the highly radioactive waste currently stored in 177 underground tanks at the Hanford Site.

Hanford’s ageing tanks contain about 54 million gallons of waste which must be converted into a form for more permanent storage; the waste will be separated into high-value and low-activity components which will be vitirified.

BNFL contracted GTS Duratek to design, construct and operate the test melter to provide essential engineering data for the full scale melters. BNFL owns the pilot test melter at Columbia.

The two-part Hanford TWRS contract is expected to generate $250 million to $300 million for the BNFL team over the next 24 to 30 months.

The entire project is estimated at $6.9 billion over a period of 18 to 20 years, resulting in the safe immobilisation of approximately 10% mass, or 20% to 25% of the radioactivity of the tank waste by 2018.

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