Nuclear Regulatory Commission Issues Blistering Report on Energy Department Waste Plan

By Tom Carpenter

Models that do not reflect reality, bad data and unrealistic assumptions were just some of the criticisms levied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) against the Energy Department’s proposal to bury high-level waste under tons of concrete at Hanford’s C Farm tanks.  The comments were aired in a recent public meeting where NRC staff members explained their findings.

The NRC’s public presentation on May 30, 2019 was in response to a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal issued in the summer of 2018, attracting immediate heavy fire from public interest groups, tribal nations and other stakeholders.

In 2018, DOE announced that it intends to leave about 70,000 gallons of untreated nuclear waste in a set of Hanford tanks designated as the C Farm tanks. It appears to us that DOE  wants to simply pour concrete on top of the waste and walk away.

The problem with DOE’s proposal is that the tank waste is extremely long-lived, with toxicity levels lasting literally millions of years for some of the radioactive elements.  It is very likely that the waste will migrate from the Hanford site and into the Columbia River, into food supplies, and the environment in general.  The result is the inevitable poisoning of ecosystems and future generations, who will have no defense against the radiological attacks happening on a cellular level as they consume food, drink water and breathe air.

This kind of waste is supposed to be dug up and isolated in a deep, geological repository where it cannot contaminate biological systems.

But the DOE has stated that it is simply too expensive to follow the law, and therefore it is seeking to rename the waste.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was asked to weigh in by the DOE on its proposal, although the DOE is free to ignore NRC comments.

The NRC had both hands tied behind its back.  The list of what they were told not to look at was long.  For instance, the NRC was told to not consider existing soil contamination from leaks and spills in the C Farm Tank area.  The NRC was not to consider a composite analysis of all waste being abandoned at Hanford, just the slice the DOE was proposing to leave in the C tank farm. The NRC made clear that it had no authority, no regulatory power, no monitoring oversight, and NRC was instructed not to consider impacts of abandoning high-level waste beyond 1,000 years.

Even though 1,000 years seems like a long time, consider that just one of the radioactive elements in the high-level waste at Hanford, technecium-99, has a half-life of 211,000 years.  It will be toxic to humans for 2.1 million years.  Another radionuclide, Iodine-129, has a half-life of 15 million years.

Despite the effort by DOE to constrain DOE’s review, the NRC had many pointed comments to make that DOE will have to address before it can move forward.

Among the comments, the NRC found:

  • DOE has to do a better job of accounting for the kinds of radionuclides that are being left behind, and in what quantities.  This criticism was levied at waste being left in several hundred feet of underground pipes that are plugged up with radioactive materials.  The NRC made the same point about what was being left in the tanks.
  • The NRC was also unconvinced that DOE had done all it could to remove left-over waste in the tanks, and had several questions regarding the sufficiency of DOE’s efforts.
  • The NRC found calculation errors in the documents, and questioned the adequacy, and maybe existence of the quality assurance review for the DOE studies.
  • The NRC said that DOE did not have realistic future scenarios for how the waste could affect humans into the future.  In particular, the NRC questioned DOE’s assumption that the Hanford site would stay the same over thousands of years, assuming no earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, changes in rainfall patterns, floods, and other scenarios that could cause migration of radionuclides.
  • Along the same lines, the NRC didn’t think DOE’s assumptions about future “intruders” on the site – people who come along and use Hanford in the future for farming, mining, drilling, and even perhaps searching for caches of tools and materials – were realistic.
  • In one of the more damning comments, the NRC accused the DOE of failing to produce a realistic model for how the waste at the bottom of the tanks will eventually move in the environment and into human systems.

The DOE said in response to the NRC concerns that it intends to respond to the comments by September 2019.  In the meantime, the NRC has requested additional information from the DOE to be made public.  The NRC’s presentation, its comments, and requests for information, can all be found on the NRC website at https://adams.nrc.gov/wba/ and entering the search term “PROJO736” for relevant documents. Note, you must click the search button, don’t just hit enter.

 

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