The cleanup of radioactive contamination at the Idaho National Laboratory will celebrate a major milestone this month—but, it may take another nine years to get the waste out of the state and into a permanent home, according to the manager in charge of the project.
The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant—a key cog in the billion-plus-dollar cleanup effort implemented by the Department of Energy—is down to the last 100 cubic feet of radioactive material it has been tasked with packing up and shipping out of Idaho, according to INL Deputy Manager Jack Zimmerman, who heads the Idaho Cleanup Project.
That’s about two weeks of work for the facility, covering a fraction of the transuranic waste—materials exposed to man-made elements heavier than uranium—that it began processing some 15 years ago. Back then, the INL had the highest concentration of the stuff anywhere in the world stored above the Snake River Plain Aquifer: 65,000 cubic feet of above-ground transuranic waste on site, enough to fill 26 Olympic swimming pools.
Now, it’s almost all been recovered, compacted to pucks one-sixth its original size, and packed into specialized containers for transit. The problem? There’s only one place to ship it, and that pipeline is clogged.
New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the final destination for most radioactive waste, including what’s shipped out of Idaho. But it 2014, its vault—located some 2,000 feet underground—caught fire. Shipments stopped for three years while repairs took place, and the INL’s waste sat on the proverbial loading dock.
“We do have quite a backlog,” Zimmerman told the Leadership in Nuclear Energy, or LINE, Commission during a meeting in the Sun Valley Opera House on Wednesday morning. “It’s treated. It’s sitting there, ready. We want it at WIPP.”
This year, the Idaho Cleanup Project managed to wrangle 65 percent of all shipments to the vault, according to Zimmerman.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who has driven a hard line on the cleanup, said he was pleased with the progress.
“I am very encouraged,” he told Zimmerman. “I have seen your dedication to the project, and [contractor] Fluor’s dedication. I’m more optimistic than I have been in the past.”
Optimistic—but unlikely to extend the life of the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant. Only Wasden and Gov. Brad Little can loosen the terms of the state’s deal with the DOE and the Navy that governs Idaho’s nuclear cleanup at the INL. To date, neither has shown much interest in doing so.
The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant, which cost about $560 million to build, will be decommissioned and demolished halfway into its 30-year lifespan. When it does, the DOE will lose the facility’s centerpiece—a “supercompactor,” the only one the department has.
Fluor Idaho holds the $1.4 million contract to clean up the site. Since 2004, its staff has retrieved waste—often poorly and occasionally purposely unlabeled at its source—and X-rayed the containers to see what’s inside. If anything is out of place, they’ll use a robotic arm to open the barrels and remove it. Then, it goes to the supercompactor, a massive hydraulic ram capable of exerting 4 million pounds of force—enough to reduce a 55-gallon drum to a puck 4 inches high. Afterward, the crushed tins are repacked, and ready to be shipped out of state.
At that plant’s peak, some 600 employees had it running 24-7.
Now, it’s down to four days a week, and winnowing away staff in anticipation of mission’s end.
Zimmerman said so far Fluor has managed the ending without “involuntary separations”—that is, layoffs. Some employees took retirement. Others transferred, to different parts of the company, or of the laboratory.
There’s plenty of waste that still need processing, too. Nearby, Fluor employees are still working on 800 cubic feet of radioactive sludge, which has to be processed at other facilities by 2023.
When the mixed-waste plant closes, Fluor hopes to keep its employees in the sector; technicians take two years to properly train, Zimmerman said, and the pool of applicants entering the field of nuclear remediation is fairly shallow.
“It’s a highly trained, highly skilled workforce,” Zimmerman said. “Losing them—having them drop out of the workforce—that has an impact.”
Either way, eastern Idaho is bracing for the end. The region has seen the economic boost from the operation. There, officials voiced strong support for keeping the plant open to treat transuranic waste imported from out of state.
Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper serves on the LINE Commission. Next week, many of her constituents will meet at the plant to throw a going-away party, of sorts, for their office of 15 years.
“People are not fungible in this industry, and they’re not a dime-a-dozen,” she said. “While there’s certainly celebration and joy that the waste is cleaned up, there’s an ending, on the human side, that we need to keep in mind. I know many who are not calling it a celebration, but a commemoration.”
For his part, Zimmerman was focusing on the successes—and he said his colleagues are, too.
“We had hoped there would be another mission, with waste from other sites,” he said. “That didn’t come to fruition. But they knew when they took this job, they were here to clean up Idaho’s waste, and they’re proud to have completed it.”