Nuclear waste removal deadline could be missed

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — A court-ordered deadline at the end of this month to ship nuclear waste out of Idaho might be missed, officials at the Idaho National Laboratory say.

Steel drums filled with low-level radioactive waste are backing up at the site because an underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico is not taking shipments due to recent mishaps.

Ben Roberts of the U.S. Department of Energy told the Post Register that there are more than 400 shipments ready to go, and that storage facilities at the southeastern Idaho site could be at capacity by September of next year.

Brad Bugger of the U.S. Department of Energy said it’s not clear when nuclear waste from the Idaho facility will start being shipped again to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

That site stopped taking shipments in February when a container of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured after being placed in a storage room at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Sampling stations at and near the plant confirmed the presence of trace amounts of americium and plutonium. The release forced the plant’s indefinite closure. Federal officials have said it could take years and a half-billion dollars to restart operations.

A 1995 settlement agreement between Idaho and federal authorities sets deadlines for when radioactive waste must leave Idaho, and one of them requires 2,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste to be moved out the state per year. That hasn’t been met this year.

There’s also a possibility the federal government will miss a 2018 deadline to have all lower level transuranic waste removed from the state.

“It’s going to be a big deal here, because we’re not going to meet the settlement agreement,” said Bob Skinner, a retired radioactive waste manager for CWI, a cleanup contractor.

In the 1995 agreement struck between the federal government and then-Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, the Department of Energy was required to remove all high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel from Idaho by 2035. The fear was that buried nuclear waste would seep into the huge Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer that provides water to much of the state’s agriculture industry.

Susan Burke, INL coordinator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the state agency wants the nuclear waste moved to the site in New Mexico, but doesn’t “have any concerns with the storage of drums at the site right now.”

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