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Basins clear of spent nuclear fuel at Hanford

The cleanup marks a milestone with the removal of the final canisters, and attention turns to sludge.
The Oregonian
October 24, 2004

For decades, Washington housed a nuclear nightmare.

Two concrete pools by the Columbia River held more than 2,300 tons of decaying uranium reactor fuel in cracking canisters. The basins held roughly half as much radioactivity as the Chernobyl disaster released.

By Friday, officials at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation said, no fuel was left in the pools.

This week, crews finished retrieving 105,000 fuel canisters from under 20 feet of water, along with cleaning and stabilizing the material inside. The fuel -- mostly uranium with a little plutonium -- is now in dry storage in a concrete bunker nine miles from the river. It will stay there until a national storehouse for high-level nuclear fuel opens. Such a facility is planned for Nevada, but that site has stiff political opposition and may never be built.

Workers fished the first fuel canister from Hanford's basins in late 2000. The last was removed about three months behind schedule, but regulators are thrilled anyway.

"This is in some respects a monumental achievement that we're talking about today," said Nick Ceto, Hanford project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "This material, in the condition it was in, was available potentially to leak into the groundwater, into the soil under the basins."

The question of leakage

In fact, the basins have leaked more than 15 million gallons of liquid into the soil, mostly during the 1970s. No one knows just how much radiation that put into the ground or how much pollution hit the river, but estimates could improve as the $1.7 billion cleanup continues.

Workers still must remove and figure out how to treat 50 cubic meters of radioactive sludge, a mixture of decayed nuclear fuel, concrete and other debris on the basins' floors. That should be done by mid-2007, said Keith Klein, manager of the U.S. Energy Department's Richland Operations Office, which oversees the project. Then, by 2009, crews should remove the basins themselves, he said. That will let scientists check how much pollution leaked to the ground below and what can be done to clean it, Ceto said.

The basins are a relic of Hanford's work arming the nation's atomic bombs. Since World War II, the 586-square-mile site near Richland, Wash., has housed nuclear reactors that turned uranium into plutonium for nuclear weapons. Hanford made about 74 tons of plutonium for arms, Klein said, about two-thirds the nation's total.

Poor conditions

When weapons production stopped, Hanford was left with 105,000 spent fuel elements. They were stored in 3-foot-tall metal canisters in the two cooling, water-filled "K Basins," each about the area of an Olympic-size swimming pool. It was poor long-term storage, Klein said, and the canisters soon cracked, exposing uranium to bare water and degrading the fuel.

"The more it degraded, the faster it degraded, in an accelerating process," he said.

Worse yet: Engineers realized about 11 years ago that a big earthquake might crack a pool's concrete and let the water drain out, said Ken Niles, nuclear safety administrator for the Oregon Office of Energy. If the fuel rods then hit air, they might spontaneously burn, creating a Chernobyl in south-central Washington.

That realization spurred efforts to remove the fuel. But Klein said enough "false starts and missteps" followed that a U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing about it in 1998. Given that history, he said, finishing the fuel removal brought "a great deal of pride and relief."

Working from a distance

The spent-fuel work was devilishly hard. Workers had to stand yards away and use machines to manipulate radioactive canisters. Some of the powdery fuel disintegrated on contact. Other fuel had chemically bonded to the metal canisters, which had to be cracked open with the Jaws of Life tools used on wrecked cars.

"You wouldn't think you could break a Jaws of Life," said Chris Lucas, who worked on the project for the site contractor, Fluor Hanford. "But we broke two."

The fuel's removal shows that even difficult, dangerous cleanup tasks at Hanford can be finished when the Energy Department provides enough resources, Niles said. He also praised regulators with the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board for staying focused on the project.

"We believe this is one of the most significant accomplishments there has been at Hanford," Nile said.

Andy Dworkin: 503-221-8239;  andydworkin@news.oregonian.com

homepage: homepage: http://hanfordwatch.org

Nuclear plants being relicensed at record rates 24.Oct.2004 19:30

Patty Henetz

The cancer rate likely will increase if the pro-war Bush administration forces more nuclear waste down the throats (literally inhaling airborne radioactive dust particulates) of the Shoshone, Goshute and anyone else living in Nevada (Newe Sogobia) near Yucca Mountain. According to the Department of Energy, Yucca Mountain no longer has enough storage space remaining for the increased nuclear waste imported from the reliscensed nuclear facilities around the nation..

Is this the noble, virtuous American government that claims to care for her people?

Or does the genocide and oil theft in Iraq by US military require a genocide and mineral theft in America (Newe Sogobia) by Department of Energy?

People, please stand up to this tyrant US corporate government before we all die..

Following article found on the Shundahai website;

Yucca Mountain too small: High amounts of waste turn up the pressure to approve storage facilities such as in Skull Valley

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune 10/23/2004

Since Congress chose Yucca Mountain in 2002 to be the nation's permanent nuclear waste repository, nuclear power plants have been relicensed at an unprecedented rate, an environmental advocacy group reports.

That means more waste will be generated than Yucca can hold - which turns up the fire under Private Fuel Storage's proposal for temporary storage of spent fuel rods on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation, said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group Action Fund.

"These license extensions have the same effect on PFS as on Yucca Mountain: They put more pressure on some of these reactors to move waste off-site sooner rather than later," Wiles said Friday.
The EWG Action Fund claims nuclear power plants will be transformed into long-term waste dumps unless Congress authorizes Yucca Mountain's expansion.

Since that's not likely to happen, and since many electric utilities with nuclear plants are running out of waste storage space, Wiles said putting the waste in the Utah desert would become even more attractive.

Environmental Working Group argues utilities ought to lessen their dependence on nuclear power, especially since the opening of the Nevada waste site is likely to be delayed beyond its 2010 deadline.
Yucca Mountain's statutory limit is 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste. Wiles said that DOE estimates that plants now operating will produce 118,000 tons is based on an assumption of 10-year license extensions.

"But the utilities are applying for and getting 20-year extensions," he said.
"In the end, . . . we'll have twice as much waste as can fit in Yucca," Wiles said. "So what's the next best place? Maybe it's Utah. If you've got an above-ground site that's taking the waste, boy, that sure is convenient."

PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin said some of the utilities in the eight-member consortium backing the Goshute proposal have applied for 20-year license extensions, and others are considering doing so.
"We do think it makes a strong case for an interim facility such as ours. It may even make a case for additional interim facilities or additional repositories," she said.

Scott Burnell, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the commission evaluated extending reactor licenses under the assumption there will be a national waste repository and that dry cask storage at utility sites would operate safely for up to 30 years.

"Having a consolidated facility like PFS would obviously extend the capacity of what we consider extended storage," Burnell said.

The Energy Department, however, is in an enormous amount of trouble over Yucca Mountain due to Nevada's absolute resistance to the proposal and multiple lawsuits filed to stop it.

DOE also is in the throes of figuring out how to ship the waste across the country. Gary Lanthrum, director of DOE's transportation program, has said Congress' unwillingness to fully fund the Yucca Mountain proposal may ultimately force an overhaul of its entire work plan, which would mean missing the 2010 deadline.

Lanthrum recently revealed another significant problem: The contract between DOE and the utilities doesn't allow the agency to take canistered fuel. Lanthrum has interpreted that to mean DOE is under no obligation to take waste directly from the PFS site, which wouldn't have the capability to repack the canisters to DOE specifications.

That interpretation could negate the premise that PFS is a temporary storage site for waste on its way to Yucca Mountain.

PFS could get its license to begin work on its $3.1 billion, 100-acre facility as early as January.
Dianne Nielsen, executive director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, said the state is considering whether to make Lanthrum's declaration the basis of another "contention," a form of objection, with the Atomic Safety Licensing Board, which is considering whether to grant PFS its license.

There is also the possibility that waste sent to PFS might someday have to be returned to the utilities that sent it in the first place.

But Brian O'Connell, spokesman for the National Association of State Regulators, said that wasn't a problem he would worry about.

"The only thing I know is the government has the responsibility to accept and dispose of the waste that is at the reactor sites," O'Connell said. "Whether it is relocated at Skull Valley or somewhere else, they've got to deal with it. The responsibility doesn't go away."

Likewise Hanford 24.Oct.2004 19:53

Lynn Porter

For the same reason, it's unlikely that Hanford nuclear waste will ever go to Yucca Mountain, if the repository every opens, because there won't be room for any military waste. Most likely Hanford's waste will stay at Hanford, but stored away from the Columbia River and in a form that will immobilize it and keep it out of the environment.