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Billions could be saved at Savannah River Site by reclassifying radioactive wastes, DOE says

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SRS, Aerial, Tank Farms

An aerial view of a portion of the Savannah River Site, a U.S. Department of Energy complex south of Aiken.

Billions upon billions of dollars and years of toil could be saved by classifying and treating certain kinds of nuclear wastes currently trapped at sites across the U.S. as less dangerous, based on their characteristics, a new evaluation from the Department of Energy shows.

More than $200 billion could be pocketed if certain reprocessing wastes – both current and expected – at the Savannah River Site, Idaho National Laboratory and the Hanford site in Washington were categorized as not high-level radioactive waste, a term that denotes hazard level.

“Classifying these reprocessing wastes as non-HLW could enable DOE to begin disposition of such waste earlier, reduce costs, and lower the risk to workers, the public, and the environment,” the department said in a years-in-the-making report to Congress.

While most of the savings would be realized at Hanford, a World War II- and Cold War-era plutonium powerhouse now notoriously difficult to remediate, upward of $5 billion could be saved at the Savannah River Site south of Aiken, the study suggests. The benefits would, effectively, stem from expedited cleanup and saved space.

“Hanford, INL, and SRS could reduce the time that untreated radioactive waste is stored on-site,” the Energy Department reported, “furthering DOE’s commitment to state and local communities to move radioactive material out of the generator state.”

The nuclear waste stored at the Savannah River Site is considered by many to be the state’s single largest environmental threat. Dealing with it quickly, safely and legally, then, is paramount.

“$200-something billion, even in government terms, is a lot of money,” said Rick McLeod with the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization, a local nonprofit. “Across the complex, this is huge.”

The Energy Department last year trucked 8 gallons of radioactive wastewater from the Savannah River Site to a commercial facility in western Texas for treatment and disposal, the first and only real-world application of the department’s reinterpreted definition of high-level radioactive waste. Other wastes in other places could similarly be considered, studied and recategorized – a lengthy, abstruse process – in the future. 

For years, the department defined nuclear waste by its origin, from “which building it came from,” Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar has said.

Under the reinterpretation and by chiefly considering radioactivity, the wastewater, a byproduct of Defense Waste Processing Facility operations, was reclassified as low-level waste. (The DWPF is a massive plant at SRS that encases nuclear sludge in glass logs, making it much safer to handle and store long term.) That made the Texas terminus, with Waste Control Specialists, possible.

“The team did a remarkable job of putting together that program, figuring out which material to get, figuring out how to get it out of the tank and ship it off,” Savannah River Site manager Michael Budney has said. “So well done there.”

The Savannah River Site wastewater shipment is cited multiple times in the Energy Department’s December dispatch to the leadership of the House and Senate armed services and energy committees.

Categorizing a waste by its contents – its radioactivity and the health risks it poses, among other factors – brings the U.S. into the international fold, a point emphasized in the 37-page report. It could also begin to solve a nationwide nuclear waste logjam that has left communities and plants in limbo.

“It gives us many more options to safely manage the materials and do it cost effectively,” said Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness Executive Director Jim Marra, who formerly worked at the Savannah River National Laboratory. “I think this is a real opportunity for us to do some things.”

Currently, high-level radioactive waste is destined for permanent disposal in a dedicated repository; such a facility, though, does not exist, and likely won’t for years to come. As Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette noted in the introductory pages of the report, “The fiscal year 2021 budget does not provide funding to advance the Yucca Mountain project.”

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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