The US Still Doesn’t Know How and Where It Will Store Its Growing Nuclear Waste

A year and a quarter after a scathing Government Accountability Office (GAO) reporIt was revealed that the US Department of Energy has no plan in place to manage the nuclear waste from weapons manufacturing, which has accumulated at more than 150 sites across the nation. The DoE has also made little progress in developing a strategic and safe plan to handle the waste. Meanwhile, the estimated cost of handling the material is rising steadily — $512 billion at last count — and the federal government hasn’t yet figured out how to pay for it.

And of course, most of the waste must be safely stored for at least 10,000 more years, a time frame even more bizarre than the amount of the debt.

In a letter to Congress in June, GAO said the DoE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) — which is charged with building facilities to treat millions of gallons of radioactive waste, and remediating contaminated soil and water at nuclear weapons construction sites — needs to use factors such as costs and risks to human health and the environment, in determining which cleanup projects to focus on.

The GAO has reported in the past that the DoE’s cleanup policy, “which governs the EM cleanup program, does not direct how EM should make environmental cleanup decisions, including how to make risk-informed cleanup decisions,” even though GAO and DoE’s own inspector general had been recommending such an approach since the 1990s.

The United States has approximately 14,000 metric tonnes of high-level waste from defense-related activities, from the World War II era to the 1980s. The DoE currently manages five states’ facilities that contain this waste. 16 sites have been affected by contamination. These sites now cost $406 billion to clean up, a significant increase from the $163 billion spent ten years ago. (An additional $106 billion in waste handling costs is borne by other DoE offices.

“The increase in costs is driven by the fact that facilities are continuing to degrade while awaiting disposition, which ultimately drives up stabilization costs and final Deactivation & Decommissioning costs,” DoE reported to Congress last year.

The funding gap has accumulated over many decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The US military is responsible for the waste. Therefore, the congressional armed service committees are responsible for funding and overseeing its management. Unfortunately, the committees are mainly concerned with funding the armed forces of today and tomorrow, not cleaning up yesterday’s garbage.

The defense bill passed by Congress on December 15 does contain some remediation measures for nuclear waste, but it’s not nearly enough. It authorizes $6.48 Billion for clean up. The bill also establishes university and competitive grant programs to help develop technology for clean-up. The bill directs DoE, within one year, to develop a comprehensive strategy to determine what type and quantity of defense nuclear waste it will generate, how it will store it, how it will treat it, and where it can dispose of it. DoE would need to develop a computer program for the process within two-years. GAO will assess the effort.

EM spent $7.5 billion in the first half 2021 on nuclear waste cleanup and management at 91 sites. At a very friendly hearing in May before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, William “Ike” White, acting assistant secretary for EM, said the office was “entering a new era of cleanup progress” and “ramp-up in the ability to tackle radioactive waste stored in underground tanks.”

But GAO says EM’s cost and schedule estimates for cleanups are “unreliable” and said that at a number of sites the agency’s “liability may continue to grow, in part because EM may have underestimated the cost to complete some of its largest projects.” (GAO also reported in October that it “could not determine how much DoE actually spends on cleanup research and development because the agency does not track such spending … nor evaluate the outcomes of the research.”)

GAO found that EM did not develop a long-range plan for handling nuclear waste at the Hanford Site, Washington State, which is currently the most contaminated site in the country. The abandoned site, located near the Columbia River in Benton County, houses 56 million gallons radioactive waste in underground tanks. The cleanup and storage of waste at the site, which produced plutonium for 40-years, has been difficult for decades. Over the years, approximately 1 million gallons radioactive liquids leaked into ground from these tanks and contaminated the Columbia River and local aquifer. DoE replaced some of the leaking tanks but it still hasn’t decided what to do with the now-empty tanks, though the department’s own analysis showed it could save about $18 billion by sealing them in place rather than moving them.

GAO believes that EM could save hundreds or billions of dollars if there is enough planning. “GAO looks at what we do with what we have, not what we can do if we had more resources,” says Nathan Anderson, GAO director of natural resources and environment. “We offer a menu of options on how to better use resources…that’ll last to the end of the century and maybe more.”

For example, EM could save billions of dollars if Hanford, which considers all its waste “high level,” reclassified some of the material as “low level” if it’s not very radioactive, the GAO report suggests. DoE could seal the tanks using grout, which is a mixture water, cement, and sand. (It’s not clear if doing so is legal, though trials found it works. Technical problems forced EM to stop construction at Hanford of a waste treatment plant. The plant would have been able to sort out both high- and lower-hazardous waste. GAO suggested that Congress clarify the law, but Congress has yet not to act.

“There are still 177 underground tanks at Hanford that have to be treated,” Anderson says. “Congress needs to give DoE the flexibility to decide based on science, not source.”

Similarly, GAO found that EM hasn’t budgeted space at its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico and can’t even tell if the plant can continue to operate on schedule. The Carlsbad plant is currently the Only Deep geological space within the country that is licensed to store contaminated clothes, tools, etc. the longest-lasting radioactive waste, such a plutonium, for up to 10,000 years.

The plant was originally designed to stop accepting material in 2024. However DoE plans to expand it to continue filling it up until 2050 or even longer. However, GAO says that expansion “work may not be completed before existing space is full.” Construction of more storage at the facility has been hampered by a contractor that lacked adequate technical expertise, and staffing shortages. Accidents in 2014, including an underground fire that contaminated a tunnel with radiation, reduced the plant’s operations.

DoE is currently facing a statutory limit on how much waste it can store in that space. So, it recently changed its counting method so that space between storage drums is not considered storage space. The change was approved by New Mexico regulators, but the matter is currently being challenged in court.

“They knocked a third out of it with a slight of hand. That will allow them a lot more waste,” complains Scott Kovac, operations & research director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico (NWNM), an anti-nuclear local group.

The New Mexico Environment Department is now considering DoE’s request to add two new storage panels Add to the existing storage. “If the two new panels were added to the permit, the modification request shows that the total WIPP capacity would be more than 6.7 cubic feet of waste, even though the legal limit is 6.2 million cubic feet,” Kovac says.

NWNM, Stop Forever WIPP Coalition, as well as other environmental and activist groups, are waiting for several court and state government decisions about the future status of the site. Kovac says DoE needs to find a new repository but doesn’t know of a good site. “We are trying to keep New Mexico from being the dump site of the US.”

(The defense bill Congress recently passed includes $80million to fix ventilation problems at WIPP.

However, the construction of new storage facilities is fraught with danger, regardless if they are used for nuclear weapons manufacturing or power generation.

Back in the 1980s, DoE and Congress had approved construction of another permanent, deep underground waste burial site in Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada to store commercial spent nuclear fuel — used fuel from nuclear power reactors. But following decades of fierce opposition to the project from the state and Nevada’s indigenous tribes, Congress eliminated funding for it in 2011. (As per Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982Although federal responsibility is shared for the management and disposal of commercially-used nuclear fuel, the DoE has been lagging behind for nearly a quarter of a century in the acceptance of waste from commercial reactors.

Earlier this year, as an interim measure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted licenses to two companies — Holtec International and Interim Storage Partners — to construct spent fuel storage facilities in New Mexico and Texas respectively to temporarily store waste from nuclear power plants across the US. The states and environmental groups are challenging both projects in court. They are concerned that the temporary facilities, which have a license that lasts 40 years each, could become permanent due to the absence of a permanent waste storage facility such as the one proposed at Yucca Mountain.

A separate GAO report, published in September, has urged Congress to “take action to break the impasse over a permanent solution for commercial spent nuclear fuel.” According to that report, as of 2019, about 86,000 metric tons of commercial spent nuclear fuel was being stored onsite at 75 operating or shut-down nuclear power plants in 33 states, and the amount of spent fuel was growing by about 2,000 metric tons annually.

GAO is now focusing its investigations away from department management to troubled project, Anderson says. Anderson cites NNSA, the DoE agency responsible military application nuclear science and which Anderson believes may be more vulnerable to leakage than other sites EM was using its limited resources.

Last year, GAO faulted EM for not developing a strategy to dispose of certain waste from Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s site for nuclear energy research and development. DoE’s own report It could save between $12 billion to $15 billion in 2020 states by sealing off low-level waste at Idaho National Laboratory. This will reduce transportation costs and deep storage costs.

A Senate Armed Services Committee report noted this year “that as the United States continues to maintain and modernize its nuclear weapons stockpile, waste will continue to be generated and must be treated, stored, and disposed of.… It is not clear whether there are sufficient facilities to address the waste generated by these activities or whether such facilities are included in current plans and budgets.”

In an email statement to the Journal, EM said it is “committed to continuous improvements in contract and project management and in reducing DoE’s environmental liabilities.” It added that GAO “acknowledged the notable actions EM has taken to demonstrate commitment to improving its contract and project management” in cleaning up some problem sites, such as the East Tennessee Technology Park at Oak Ridge and the Salt Waste Processing Facility at Savannah River, South Carolina.