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Energy Department to likely miss deadline in Idaho waste cleanup

Radioactive liquid transfer may stretch into '13, agency says

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 10:13 p.m. MDT

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — U.S. Department of Energy officials say the agency will likely miss its deadline for cleaning up radioactive liquid waste at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Tom D'Agostino, the DOE's nuclear security undersecretary, said Wednesday that the department won't have all 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing waste removed by Dec. 31 because a facility built to package the waste isn't yet operational.

A settlement agreement between the federal government and the state of Idaho requires that all liquid waste at the eastern Idaho site be removed from tanks above the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer by 2013.

In 2007, the DOE began building the $571 million Integrated Waste Treatment Unit to condense the liquid into a powder similar to laundry detergent that would then be stored on site. But a filter at the facility was clogged with nonradioactive material in June, and contractor CH2M-WG Idaho is still working to diagnose and correct the problem. Until it's fixed, the building will remain shut down.

D'Agostino said the facility will be up and running soon. Once it is, he said, processing the 900,000 gallons of waste will go quickly.

"We are committed to getting this job done," D'Agostino said. "We might miss (the benchmark) by a couple months. We might miss it by a half a year. But if we miss it, we will have gotten the job done."

Jim Cooper, the DOE's deputy manager for the cleanup project, said liquid waste poses a greater environmental risk than solid waste. Once the waste is converted into a dry powder, it will be placed in stainless steel canisters and then into concrete vaults.

No fines will be levied if the deadline is missed, Cooper said, and the Idaho National Laboratory won't receive any shipments of spent nuclear fuel until all of the liquid waste is converted into a solid form. The department is ahead of schedule on a separate cleanup deadline set for 2023, Cooper noted.

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