A new group of state and federal workers that was announced Tuesday could discuss contentious waste-related issues that include concerns over shipping low-level radioactive waste from a World War II-era building in Oak Ridge to a federal landfill in Nevada.
The new group, which will include senior-level state and federal employees, was announced in a six-page agreement, a memorandum of understanding signed last week by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval.
The talks started more than a year ago, after Sandoval sent a letter to Moniz expressing concerns over the proposed disposal of the radioactive waste at the Nevada National Security Site, a former nuclear weapons proving ground about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The waste contains radioisotopes of uranium from the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project. It originated from a 1960s research and development test of thorium and uranium reactor fuel in New York. It is stored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Building 3019—the oldest continuously operating nuclear facility in the Department of Energy complex—in 403 ceramic-like uranium oxide monoliths. Each of the monoliths is bonded to the inside of a steel canister about 3.5 inches in diameter and about two feet long.
DOE has proposed shipping the waste from Oak Ridge in its existing ceramic-like form, encased in the stainless steel canisters and rugged shipping casks that meet federal radiation standards, loaded into cargo containers, and secretly shipped 2,000 miles on flatbed trucks from ORNL to a 740-acre section of the Nevada National Security Site known as Area 5, where low-level radioactive waste has been disposed of since 1961. The waste would be buried 40 feet below the ground and covered with soil, other low-level waste, or LLW, and capped by eight feet of soil.
“With the soil covering the disposal trench, the dose rate would be indistinguishable from background radiation,” DOE said in a Supplemental Analysis approved August 7 by Mark Whitney, who is now the department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for environmental management.
“Collectively, the approach of time, distance, and shielding would ensure that members of the public as well as DOE site and transportation workers would be protected during all phases of CEUSP LLW material loading, transportation, and emplacement in the disposal facility,” the report said.
Darwin Morgan, a Security Site spokesman in North Las Vegas, told the New York Times that state and federal officials are still discussing what the next steps on shipments will be.
“We are optimistic that we will be able to ship in early 2015,” Morgan said.
Nevada officials told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the agreement announced last week does not finalize a path for the uranium waste still on hold at Oak Ridge. Those talks are ongoing and the waste remains in Tennessee, state and federal officials said.
The Times reported that trucks were ready to roll in mid-2013 when the state balked at the plan, opponents called for a full-scale National Environmental Policy Act review, working group participants began meeting, and the Energy Department began hosting town hall-style public meetings to describe the burial plan.
Sandoval had expressed concerns about shipping the CEUSP waste to the 1,360-square-mile Nevada National Security Site in a June 2013 letter to Moniz. Among the concerns was categorizing the low-level waste, or LLW, by exception—essentially defining it by what it is not (high-level radioactive waste, transuranic waste, spent nuclear fuel, or by-product material).
Low-level waste typically consists of containers of debris, trash, soil, equipment, tools, and personal protective clothing. The CEUSP waste contains fissile U-233 and U-235 radioisotopes that decay over time, and it is managed as special nuclear material that requires stringent management controls and procedures for both material protection (assuring protection of the material from theft or diversions) and physical security. DOE manages the CEUSP LLW material as special nuclear material at ORNL.
DOE said it’s a very small volume of waste, less than 100 cubic feet.
But Nevada officials had grown concerned that the proposed uranium waste shipments might open the door for other exotic forms of nuclear waste, the Review-Journal said.
Nevada has also had concerns with proposed transportation routes and methods, engagement with affected local governments and Native American tribes, worker health and safety, and environmental protection.
In the MOU, DOE said it has agreed to use the Office of Secure Transportation to provide armed security guards to escort the waste from ORNL to the NNSS.
After Sandoval’s letter last summer, DOE said, Moniz and the Nevada governor agreed to convene a senior-level working group to review issues related to the disposal of the CEUSP canisters. Discussion topics for the Nevada National Security Site Working Group announced Tuesday will include expanded or more missions, waste acceptance criteria, low-level waste classification, public health and safety, and communication and education.
DOE and Nevada stressed the importance of communication and a productive relationship. The two parties agreed that the current low-level waste classification system will benefit from an independent scientific review.
DOE said the working group has met in person and by phone and “come to better understand the unique relationship that must be maintained between Nevada and DOE, and have identified other opportunities to improve communications and collaboration.”
Technical, legal, and environmental issues have been clarified, and public meetings have been held in Las Vegas and Nye County. The Supplemental Analysis was prepared at Nevada’s request, and DOE has determined that no further documentation is required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Supplemental Analysis said ORNL’s Building 3019, where the waste is now stored, has a “number of serious challenges.” It was built in the 1940s, and it’s hard to maintain and secure.
In 1997, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board expressed its concern over continuing to store the CEUSP low-level waste in Building 3019. Ten years later, DOE’s Office of Environmental Management determined that the continued storage of U-233 there represented a significant safety, safeguards and security, and financial burden.
Reusing the material has been ruled out. So has disposing of it at the Environmental Management Waste Management Facility on Bear Creek Road in Oak Ridge. And so have other options, including downblending (dissolving the material and mixing it with another waste or depleted uranium) and disposal at commercial landfills near Clive, Utah, or in Andrews, Texas.
The 1960s test of thorium and uranium reactor fuel that produced the waste was sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission (a DOE precursor), and it was conducted at the Consolidated Edison Indian Point-1 reactor in New York.
After that test was completed in late 1968, Nuclear Fuel Services at West Valley, New York, recovered the uranium—which was then considered a potentially reusable nuclear material—by separating it from transuranic isotopes, fission products, and other constituents common to reactor fuel. The extracted liquid uranium (8,000 liters of uranyl nitrate) was shipped to ORNL for storage and possible reuse, and the other constituents remained at West Valley for either vitrification or land disposal.
Because the extracted material contained several isotopes of uranium, including U-235 and U-233—both fissile materials that can sustain a nuclear criticality reaction—cadmium and gadolinium were added to the liquid to prevent a criticality reaction. During the ensuing years, the material continued to be managed in ORNL’s Building 3019 in anticipation of reuse.
In the mid-1980s, with no identification of a near-term use, and for reasons of safety and security, DOE solidified all 8,000 liters of the liquid uranyl nitrate at high temperatures into the 403 individual small, ceramic-like uranium oxide (U308) monoliths. Individual canisters contain an average of 2.6 kilograms of uranium, but no more than 3.17 kilograms of uranium.
See the MOU announcement here.
See the MOU, including background information and the working agreement, here.
See the Supplemental Analysis, including background information, a description of the proposal, and specific safety measures, here.