The Low-Activity Waste Facility melters, shown here during delivery and installation in 2010, weigh DOE
In 2023 the Department of Energy will begin transforming the toxic soup stored in tanks at the Hanford, Wash. nuclear waste site into a more storable glass form, according to the head of DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.
“We’re about to begin heating up the first WTP melter,” said administrator Ike White in a recent appearance at the National Cleanup Workshop. The Waste Treatment Plant melter is designed to heat nuclear waste and glass to 2,100º F so the mixture can be poured into stainless steel containers in a stabilizing process called “vitrification.” The containers will be stored on site.
Turning on the first melter topped the to-do list released early this year by DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, and with the New Year approaching, time is running out to check it off.
“This is another huge step forward for the program as Hanford gets ever closer to immobilizing our tank waste in glass,” White said. “It’s really transformational for a site that— and it’s been decades in coming.”
The melter DOE hopes to turn on by the end of 2022—and to operate for a five-year lifetime—was installed 12 years ago.
A graphic roadmap published by the cleanup contractor, Bechtel National Inc, suggests—perhaps without irony—that the road ahead is the steepest yet. Bechtel and DOE nonetheless expect to begin the operations phase, feeding low-level waste into the “vit plant” by December 2023.
The road to this point has not been without bumps. DOE expressed frustration with Bechtel’s progress more than a decade ago, with one official calling the firm “incompetent” and urging it be removed from the job. Just last year, former Energy Secretary Steven Chu accused Bechtel and other federal contractors of opposing funding for research into better solutions for nuclear waste so they could continue to collect massive payments from the government year after year.
White expressed a more positive view:
“Everybody is on the same page with the vision for getting the cleanup done, developing a realistic and achievable approach for our most difficult challenges, like the high-level tank waste at Hanford,” he said.
DOE began treating some low-level waste at Hanford in 2022, and the vitrification process scheduled to start next year will also treat low-level waste. High-level waste is another matter.
“We’re treating Hanford tank waste on a large scale for the first time ever,” White said. “But developing a realistic and achievable approach for addressing the entire inventory of waste there remains a hurdle, something that we must overcome.”
Beginning in the 1940s, the tanks at Hanford received wastes from processes used to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for use in nuclear weapons. The tanks continued to receive waste from equipment decontamination at the Hanford site into the 1960s, and in the 1970s it was discovered that some tanks seemed to be leaking.