Separate repository for US military waste?

24 October 2014

The US Department of Energy (DOE) should consider disposing of the primarily defence-related high-level radioactive waste (HLW) and used fuel that it manages separately from waste generated by the commercial nuclear energy industry, a report written on its behalf recommends.

The report - entitled Assessment of Disposal Options for DOE-Managed High-Level Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel - was prepared by a team of federal and contractor personnel led by the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy.

The wastes managed by the DOE include HLW primarily resulting from nuclear defence activities and used fuel mainly from weapons plutonium production reactors and from nuclear-powered ships and submarines. These wastes are projected to total around 33,424 cubic meters by 2035, when they will account for some 15% of the total HLW and used fuel to be disposed of.

"Based on today's understanding, selection of disposal options with suitable characteristics might allow DOE to simplify waste treatments, potentially accelerating cleanup activities and avoiding or reducing costs associated with projected treatments for some parts of the waste inventory."

Department of Energy

Since the mid-1980s, the DOE has planned to disposal of all HLW and used nuclear fuel, regardless of its origin, in one or more shared geologic repositories. The report considered whether DOE-managed HLW and used fuel should be disposed of with commercial HLW and used fuel in one geologic repository or whether there are advantages to developing separate repositories for each.

It says that an assessment of theĀ options indicates that "multiple disposal options are technically feasible" and there are "programmatic advantages to a phased strategy that allows for flexibility in disposal pathways" for some DOE-managed waste.

The report notes that a repository exclusively for the disposal of DOE-managed HLW and used fuel not of commercial origin "could be sited and developed outside the framework of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA)." However, any such repository would be subject to licensing by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and would have to comply with other NWPA requirements related to state and local participation in the siting process.

"Based on today's understanding, selection of disposal options with suitable characteristics might allow DOE to simplify waste treatments, potentially accelerating cleanup activities and avoiding or reducing costs associated with projected treatments for some parts of the waste inventory," the report suggested.

It recommends the DOE "begin implementation of a phased, adaptive, and consent-based strategy with development of a separate mined repository for some DOE-managed HLW and cooler DOE-managed used fuel, potentially including some portion of the inventory of naval used fuel."

Disposal of this waste, it claims, "poses the fewest challenges, potentially allowing for a simpler repository design and licensing process, while helping meet DOE's environmental management goals and building confidence in waste management practices."

The report suggests that such an approach could also "provide technical and institutional experience that could facilitate development of disposal capacity for the remainder of the inventory," including commercial used fuel.

The report also recommends that the DOE "retain the flexibility to consider options for disposal of smaller DOE-managed waste forms in deep boreholes rather than in a mined geologic repository."

The DoE's application to build and operate the USA's first permanent repository at Yucca Mountain for the disposal of used nuclear fuel and military high-level wastes was lodged in 2008, but theĀ regulator suspended work on reviewing the application following a 2009 decision by the US administration to abandon the project. The NRC resumed the review following an August 2013 ruling by the US Court of Appeals that it had acted illegally in abandoning the project, for which it had in hand some $11 million of appropriated funds.

Everett Redmond, senior director of policy development at US industry body the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said, "It is the industry position that the disposal pathways and the obligations for managing both DOE high-level waste and commercial used nuclear fuel should be addressed simultaneously, not sequentially as the recommendations in the report seem to suggest."

He added, "On behalf of nuclear energy producers and suppliers we urge Congress to fund, and the Administration to continue, the review of the Yucca Mountain repository licence application."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News