Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 31 No. 24
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Article 7 of 11
June 12, 2020

NRC Outlines Role in Evaluating On-Site Disposal of Certain Hanford Waste

By Wayne Barber

The Nuclear Regulatory Commissioning said Wednesday it will conduct a technical review of an Energy Department proposal to dispose of certain vitrified low-activity radioactive waste at the Hanford Site in Washington state.

Speaking at an online public meeting, NRC Senior Risk Analyst David Esh said the agency is acting in a consulting role as the Energy Department refines a proposal to permanently dispose of much of Hanford’s processed low-activity waste at the on-site Integrated Disposal Facility.

Last month, the Energy Department issued a draft Waste Incidental to Reprocessing (WIR) Evaluation for its disposal approach. The document says the material, once it has been converted to glass form and placed into canisters, is safe enough that it does not need to be shipped to another disposal location.

The vitrified waste cannot exceed radionuclide  concentrations for Class C low-level radioactive waste in order to be stored at the Hanford facility. Class C is the most hazardous among the three classes of low-level waste, as designated by the federal government.

Esh, who is leading the NRC technical review of the DOE plan for on-site disposal, said the regulator will look at what can happen to the waste at the Integrated Disposal Facility – such as natural disasters or the chance that someone in the distant future might inadvertently drill into the waste site – and the impact of such an event.

The NRC plays a technical advisory rather than regulatory role to DOE on Waste Incidental to Reprocessing under the Energy Policy Act of 2004, NRC spokesman David McIntyre said Thursday. The Energy Department also has an interagency agreement with NRC for consultation only at the Hanford Site, a DOE spokesman said Friday.

Roughly 90% of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in 177 underground storage tanks at Hanford is estimated to be low-activity waste. Hanford is supposed to start processing that material by the end of 2023 at the Waste Treatment Plant being built by Bechtel.

The Energy Department expects 23.5 million gallons of radioactive waste, about half of the 56 million gallons generated from decades of plutonium production at Hanford, might be disposed on on-site. The agency has said in the past the vitrification plant lacks the capacity to convert all the low-activity waste into glass.

During its anticipated 40-plus years of operation, the Waste Treatment Plant will convert only one-third to one-half of the low-activity waste at Hanford into glass. As a result, research from entities such as National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the Savannah River National Laboratory is looking for what to do with the remaining LAW. Potential options include another vitrification plant, or facilities employing grouting and steam reforming.

The NRC will finish its draft detailed technical review of Hanford disposal of the vitrified LAW and file it with the Energy Department by Oct. 1. The DOE will then respond to the report by Jan. 27, 2021. The final technical review should be filed with the Energy Department by May 21, 2021.

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