Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 30 No. 43
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November 08, 2019

Idaho, DOE Strike Deal on Resumption of Spent Fuel Shipments

By Wayne Barber

The state of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Energy have negotiated a deal that opens to the door to resumption of some spent nuclear fuel shipments to the Idaho National Laboratory.

The agreement, announced in a Thursday press release from Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, specifically covers a one-time waiver for shipment of 25 spent fuel rods from the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois to DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory.

The waiver is tied to the start of operation of the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU), which is undergoing testing by lab cleanup contractor Fluor Idaho, as well as continued priority for shipping INL’s transuranic (TRU) waste for disposal at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

The fuel rods cannot be shipped prior to successful treatment of at least one full canister of dry sodium-bearing high-level waste at IWTU.

The 100 pounds of heavy metal from the fuel rods will enable resumption of research on commercial nuclear fuel at INL, according to the press release.

A 1995 settlement agreement between Idaho, DOE, and the Navy set hard dates for removal of DOE transuranic waste and spent fuel and high-level waste from Idaho: respectively, Dec. 31, 2018, and Jan. 1, 2035. The federal agency is in breach of the first deadline.

The seven-page supplemental agreement to the 1995 settlement was signed Wednesday by Little and Wasden, both Republicans, along with DOE Senior Adviser for Environmental Management William (Ike) White and Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal.

Until now, Idaho officials have refused to budge from a prohibition on more shipments of spent fuel into the state because of DOE’s breaches of the 1995 settlement agreement, which said Idaho could stop shipments if the federal agency missed key targets.

Among the state’s chief complaints was DOE’s failure to start treating 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing liquid radioactive waste in 2012, as well as its missed 2018 deadline for shipping the 65,000 cubic meters of TRU waste covered by the 1995 agreement to WIPP.

Construction of the IWTU was basically finished in 2012 at a cost of $571 million, but failed to operate as designed. The cost of the facility hit $1 billion earlier this year.

Early next year. DOE’s Office of Environmental Management plans to conduct a final trial run on IWTU, using actual radioactive waste rather than a simulant. The state has socked DOE with about $6.8 million in penalties so far for its failure to get the unit working.

The IWTU is drawing closer to operating. Some final tweaks are still planned, the Energy Department told the INL Citizens Advisory Board on Oct. 24.

The agreement also stipulates that, ahead of the first shipment of spent fuel, the Energy Department will commit that WIPP will take at least 55% of its emplaced waste from INL based on a three-year rolling average. In addition, INL will get priority when other shipment slots become available. During 2018, about 240 of the total 311 total shipments to WIPP came from Idaho.

The Energy Department’s failure to move the TRU waste to WIPP by the end of 2018 was largely the result of a nearly three-year outage at the underground disposal facility following a February 2014 radiation leak, the state noted in this week’s agreement.

Aside from the outage, Idaho is pleased with the rate the Energy Department has been moving INL’s transuranic waste to WIPP. More than 30,000 cubic meters were sent to underground salt mine prior to the 2014 closure, and since its reopening in 2017 the facility has received nearly 1,500 cubic meters of TRU from INL, according to the agreement.

Other stipulations on DOE for spent-fuel shipments are: extracting no less than 300 pounds of special nuclear material from Idaho before the end of 2021; sustaining treatment of spent nuclear fuel, “at the rate of 165 pounds per year on a three-year average through 2028”; adhering to other cleanup commitments beyond the 1995 deal; and upholding adherence to the 1995 agreement.

“In addition to the above requirements, the DOE must continue treating the remaining liquid high level waste at
the INL and produce at least 100 canisters of treated waste in order to bring in any additional research
quantities of spent nuclear fuel beyond the first shipment of approximately 100 pounds,” the state said in a fact sheet on the new agreement. “Once and so long as the DOE does so, it will have the discretion to bring additional spent nuclear fuel for research to the INL.”

The Energy Department requested the waiver in December 2014 to allow the 25 fuel rods to come to INL from Illinois. The deal has been five years in the making and benefited from assistance from the Idaho congressional delegation, Little and Wasden said in the press release.

The Energy Department said in a statement that the supplemental agreement “reaffirms the Department and the State’s commitment to remove waste and special nuclear materials from the state, ensuring continued protection of the Snake River Plain Aquifer while supporting the ability of Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to meet its nuclear energy research and development mission.”

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