Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 33 No. 17
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April 29, 2022

Grout use at Hanford intertwined with outcome of ‘holistic talks,’ officials say

By Wayne Barber

Washington state regulators probably will not allow the Department of Energy to solidify the Hanford Site’s liquid tank waste with grout-like cement until and unless the parties agree to permit disposal methods for liquid waste other than immobilization in glass, officials told a National Academies of Sciences panel Thursday.

“Ecology considers on-site grout disposal to be out of the question,” said Jay Decker, an engineer with Washington Ecology. There is, according to Decker, insufficient study into public environmental health and safety standards, when it comes to grouting — one of the methods DOE might choose to deal with liquid waste at Hanford that cannot be solidified by the planned Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant.

But ongoing, closed-door holistic talks between the three members of the Tri-Party Agreement — the state, DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — could conceivably give rise to a deal about grouting, speakers hinted this week at a three-day, hybrid meeting. Decker expects the holistic talks, which began in 2019, to wrap up within a year.

Officially, the three-day meeting, held online and in Richland, Wash., was part of the National Academies’ “Review of the Continued Analysis of Supplemental Treatment of Low-Activity Waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.” The Academies’ Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board organized the review.

As things stand, DOE would likely face “potential legal challenges,” if it moved ahead with a large-scale grouting program patterned upon the 2,000-gallon test bed initiative: a scaled up version of a 2017 experiment in which three gallons of Hanford’s low-activity waste were grouted by nearby private waste handler Perma-Fix and shipped to Waste Control Specialists in Texas for disposal, Nathan Anderson, director of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) natural resources and environment section, said during this week’s meeting.

Anderson and a couple of his GAO colleagues cited a December report on supplemental waste at Hanford. Ecology and DOE remain publicly at odds about whether anything other than vitrification — the long-established plan of solidifying waste inside glass-like logs cast in Hanford’s under-construction Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant — should be allowed at the former plutonium-production complex.

The GAO report said Congress could fashion a narrow exemption that allows DOE and the state to conduct the 2,000-gallon follow-up test. The state said Congress need not get involved.

The GAO report from December said grouting supplemental waste and disposing of it offsite could cost between $11 billion and $13 billion. That would be cheaper than another option: building a second Hanford vitrification plant and disposing of the glass from that plant onsite at the Integrated Disposal Facility. A second glass-making operation could run anywhere from $21 billion to $37 billion, according to GAO.

If grout becomes feasible, Perma-Fix could solidify supplemental low-activity waste from Hanford tanks and then ship it out of state for final disposal at either EnergySolutions in Clive, Utah or Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, Texas, Elena Kalinina, spent nuclear fuel storage transportation and safety specialist at Sandia National Laboratories, said Tuesday. 

Two Hanford citizen groups Thursday offered different assessments of using Perma-Fix for grouting. 

Marco Kaltofen, testifying on behalf of Hanford Challenge, said DOE should not hand off its waste work to Perma-Fix, which has had operational problems in the past. But Gerry Pollett, who heads Heart of America Northwest, said Perma-Fix does not regulate itself, as DOE effectively does, and so would likely be a safer and more efficient operator than the agency. 

State endorsement of alternative treatments would likely arrive only after numerous regulatory steps such as a supplemental environmental impact statement and an amendment to a record of decision under the Tri-Party Agreement process, Washington Ecology’s Decker said. 

All of these things influence the ongoing “holistic talks” among the three parties

“We have heard about these negotiations since we were born,” Geoffrey Rothwell, a panel member who is a consulting economist for DOE and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration among others, said at the meetings this week. 

Researchers tell National Academies panel grout offers benefits of flexibility, speed

Should DOE decide to grout much of its Hanford supplemental LAW at an existing off-site facility, the process could start as early as 2027, a Savannah River National Laboratory official told the National Academies panel Tuesday, during the first day of meetings this week.

The benefit of immobilizing waste into grout offsite “is speed … and flexibility,” Dan McCabe, senior scientist from the national laboratory in South Carolina, said. Using an existing vendor to grout supplemental tank waste offsite would eliminate the need to build a grout plant onsite at Hanford, where there is already much construction and commissioning associated with the Waste Treatment Plant, said McCabe and other Savannah River National Laboratory officials.

An updated 2022 federal study by the Savannah River National Laboratory recommends “DOE should expeditiously secure and implement multiple pathways for off-site grout solidification/immobilization and disposal of LAW [low-activity waste] in parallel with direct-feed low-activity waste (DFLAW) vitrification process” at Hanford.

The Waste Treatment Plant built by Bechtel is scheduled to start vitrifying low-activity tank waste into a glass form by 2023. DOE notionally plans to begin converting high-level waste into glass at the Waste Treatment Plant by 2036.

 “To maintain the planned tank waste processing mission schedule,” however, DOE “will require additional LAW [low-activity waste] treatment capacity,” which is dubbed supplemental LAW, according to the Savannah River Lab’s 2022 report, the subject of this week’s information-gathering meetings. 

The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act instructed the board to help analyze findings made by Savannah River National Laboratory.

The lab started with about 23 alternatives for Hanford supplemental waste and winnowed the list down to 15, including onsite, offsite and hybrid options for grout as well as additional vitrification facilities and fluidized bed steam reforming technology akin to the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at the Idaho National Laboratory.

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