Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko has announced his resignation. Jaczko, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was widely credited with — or blamed for — the NRC's acquiescence in abandoning the federal commitment to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, in Reid's home state of Nevada.
The troubled Hanford vitrification plant is designed to encase high-level waste in glass logs that meet the specs for the Yucca Mountain repository. And if Yucca — or some other designated site — isn't ready to receive it, all that waste may stay at Hanford indefinitely.
With Jaczko gone, what are the chances that Yucca will be revived? What are the chances that anything will change?
President Barack Obama has nominated Allison Macfarlane, an associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University, to succeed Jaczko. Macfarlane has been called "a vocal critic of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository."
Whoever chairs the NRC, most people think that reviving Yucca looks like a long shot. In fact, more people have already moved on.
For those who came in late, a little background: Founded during World War II as history's first plutonium factory, Hanford kept cranking out plutonium until 1989. By that time the federal government had accumulated some 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in steel tanks, some of them single-walled models of World War II vintage that had way outlasted their life expectancies. Some had already leaked. At that point, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Ecology signed a Tri Party Agreement under which the Energy Department would meet various conditions for cleaning up the site.
Under that agreement and a Hanford consent decree signed in 2010, the federal government is building the world's largest vitrification plant, designed to encase the most highly radioactive waste in borosilicate glass. The plant is supposed to be up and running by 2019. The last of the old single-walled tanks is supposed to be emptied by 2040. All the waste is supposed to be treated by 2047.
But ... The vit plant has been designed to produce those glass logs for long-term storage at the Yucca Mountain waste repository. If the federal government decides on some other repository, the logs may or may not meet its specs. If the government doesn't create a repository, that waste may stay at Hanford forever.
People assume that vitrification is merely a step toward getting the waste out of Washington. But the Tri Party Agreement doesn't specify that. The feds have never promised to ship the waste anywhere else.
The vit plant, of course, has problems of its own. Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited Hanford this month to assure people that the feds care about workplace safety. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has identified five unresolved saftey issues at the vitrification plant — including a question about whether or not the radioactive sludge will stay well mixed in the big tanks — for which the design is largely complete. Earlier this year, the board had suggested that materials in the plant's "black cells" — each of which will contain 3,900 linear feet of piping and all of which will become too radioactive for inspection or repair — might not last the full 40 years that will be required to incorporate all of Hanford's high-level liquid waste into glass logs. The Department of Energy Inspector General's draft vitrification plant audit, released on Jan. 13, makes it clear that Bechtel hasn't inspected the welds well enough to know the chances that one or more will fail. In addition, three whistleblowers allege their jobs have been lost or jeopardized because they have called attention to Hanford safety concerns. The safety board was told at a hearing on May 22 that Hanford has been making progress on safety; not everyone buys that reassurance.
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