DOE Report Recommends New Approach for Disposal of Defense Nuclear Waste

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Publication date: 
13 November 2014


A new report by the Department of Energy (DOE) recommends a strategy for the permanent underground disposal of defense high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel. Under this plan, waste material from atomic energy defense activities would be placed in a separate mined depository or deep boreholes.

The report, “Assessment of Disposal Options for DOE-Managed High-Level Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel” was released quietly in late October. The main body of the report is 33-pages long. The foreword states the report “was prepared for the Secretary of Energy by a team of federal and contractor personnel led by the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy.” This office is headed by Peter Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. The Executive Summary notes: “The analyses of alternatives and options related to the treatment and disposal of HLW [High Level Waste] and SNF [Spent Nuclear Fuel] presented in this report are based on technical and programmatic considerations and do not include an evaluation of relevant regulatory and legal considerations. This report has been prepared for informational and comparison purposes only and should not be construed as a determination of the legal permissibility of specific alternatives and options.”

The federal government’s efforts to permanently dispose of the nation’s nuclear waste have been controversial and largely unsuccessful. Litigation and congressional opposition have blocked utilization of an underground disposal site for high-level commercial and defense waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The Obama Administration has sought to terminate this project. DOE operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for transuranic waste. A DOE website explains that “transuranic, or TRU, waste . . . consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements.” Operations at this site were suspended in February 2014 following two unrelated incidents; DOE hopes to resume operations in early 2016.

It has generally been assumed that radioactive high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel from defense, commercial, and research sources would be placed in one or more common geologic repositories. This report recommends the establishment of a separate repository for some of the high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel that is “owned and managed by the DOE.” The high-level waste from atomic energy defense activities is stored in 23,569 canisters at DOE’s Savannah River Site, Idaho National Laboratory, and Hanford Site. There are an additional 3,942 canisters of spent nuclear fuel resulting from “atomic energy defense activities (weapons plutonium production reactors and naval propulsion reactors) . . . including a smaller amount of SNF from DOE research and development activities and some DOE-managed SNF from commercial sources.” DOE nuclear waste is an estimated 15 percent of the total volume of all nuclear waste from defense sources and all commercial nuclear plants after eventual decommissioning.

DOE is under pressure to move this material. The report predicts that a common repository for all types of nuclear waste may not be available until 2048. A binding agreement calls for the removal of spent nuclear fuel from the Navy’s nuclear fleet now stored at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2035. Failure to meet this deadline could prevent future refueling operations. Senior Members of Congress have been vocal in their demands that waste be removed from the Savannah River and Hanford sites.

DOE nuclear waste generally has a significantly lower thermal output than commercial waste, making it easier to dispose of. A separate mined geological repository for the disposal of DOE waste would simplify treatment, accelerate cleanup, and reduce costs. For waste canisters that are 12-inches or less in diameter the report recommends the consideration of disposal boreholes that would be 3.1 miles deep. A community and state consent-based approach would be used in siting these facilities. The report states “Early progress on a repository for some DOE-managed HLW and SNF will support the achievement of DOE’s mission of completing the cleanup of the DOE sites, and will promote improved cooperation between DOE and state regulators, help enhance public acceptability of DOE’s mission with the local communities around the DOE complex, allow limited funds to be shifted to other priority cleanup activities, and increase the likelihood of DOE meeting consent and compliance agreements.” Utilization of a consent-based approach has been successful in Spain and Canada.

The report concludes with this recommendation:

Specifically, this report recommends that the DOE begin implementation of a phased, adaptive, and consent-based strategy with development of a separate mined repository for some DOE-managed HLW and cooler DOE-managed SNF, potentially including some portion of the inventory of naval SNF. This report notes that, in addition to early development of a separate repository for cooler DOE-managed HLW and SNF, effective implementation of a strategy for management and disposal of all HLW and SNF would also include a focused research, development, and demonstration program addressing technologies relevant to deep borehole disposal of smaller DOE-managed waste forms and the disposal of large DOE-managed waste packages with high thermal loads in mined repositories.

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