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Cleaning Up Nuclear Waste: Why is DOE Five Years Behind and Billions Over Budget?

Executive Summary

The Department of Energy has spent billions on cleanup efforts which failed because the agency did not fully test a key technology. The French, by contrast, are way ahead of the U.S. because they have not only fully tested this key technology, but have implemented the process.

This technology is called vitrification, or “glassification,” of waste --- a process by which highly radioactive waste is mixed with molten glass and allowed to harden. This makes the nuclear waste relatively safe by solidifying it and avoiding leakage.

Ironically, both the U.S. and the French started their vitrification programs are roughly the same time. Unlike the French, the U.S. did not make it a high priority --- opting instead for an arguably more sophisticated vitrification process.

The result: millions of gallons of radioactive waste continue to leak into the U.S. environment and endanger public health. Meanwhile DOE’s failed cleanup efforts have cost the taxpayer billions. The French, by contrast, have effective vitrification operations at substantially less cost.

To fix this problem, the U.S. government needs to address two possible solutions: Either adopt the French process, or conduct full testing on the unproven American vitrification technology.

Since 1980, DOE’s premier vitrification plant has run five years behind schedule, and will cost 82% more to construct than originally estimated. Another DOE vitrification project will cost roughly one and a half billion dollars – three times as much as expected. In the meantime, France has used thorough testing to bring three new low-cost vitrification plants on-line.

Whether or not French designs are the best choice for the U.S. vitrification program, they offer an example of how extensive, detailed research, testing and design can lead to success. DOE has often argued, in public reports, that the uniqueness of U.S. waste and the superiority of U.S. vitrification technology make any discussion of French vitrification technology unnecessary. However, in reports not made public, DOE has extolled the virtues of thorough testing, and has estimated that billions of dollars might be saved by the adoption of French vitrification technology.

None of these reports evaluate foreign technologies in sufficient detail to exchange the course of U.S. vitrification efforts. While such a thorough evaluation might be expensive in the short term, and might not lead to the adoption of the French vitrification system, it would likely pay large dividends in the long-run by highlighting the importance of testing in large technology development programs. Because the commencement of construction on the new Hanford vitrification plant may be indefinitely delayed, DOE now has an opportunity to conduct such an evaluation.

France’s vitrification program is not perfect, and has experienced delays and cost overruns in its three newest plants. But U.S. vitrification plants of comparable size will cost 75% more to construct, and will take seven years more time to complete consturction:

DOE’s approach to vitrification has failed in the following areas:

  • No U.S. vitrification facility on-line until 1993 at the earliest. Earlier estimates called for both the Savannah River plant and the West Valley plant to become operational in 1988.
  • Cost overruns of 80% to 200% on the two vitrification plants close to completion.

This performance is in stark contrast relative to that achieved by French-designed plants. While the French vitrification plants are in some ways technologically inferior to American plants, they are demonstrably superior in several important ways:

  • French vitrification plants have operated successfully on a small scale since 1978. Full scale production began in 1989. The U.S. has never operated a full-scale vitrification plant.
  • France has a full-scale pilot plan available for testing new waste compositions. This plant was used to demonstrate the French process for the British, when they were evaluating vitrification alternatives. As a result, the British chose the French system. The same plant might be used to test U.S. waste.
  • All French designs are based on full-scale testing. U.S. designs, rather than relying on extensive full-scale testing, are built so that they may be easily modified. While the American approach is more flexible, it greatly increases the cost of these facilities.

The French emphasis on testing likely contributes to the superior performance of their vitrification plants. In 1987, an internal DOE study team concluded that the French emphasis on testing was important:

Basic intelligence, gathered through the years of testing and small-scale operations, are used to design plants that are easier to operate and maintain.

This ease of operation contributes directly to operating costs. That same unpublished study group estimated that by using a French design at Hanford, the U.S. might save nearly $4 billion in operating costs over a 40-year operation period. Savings of this magnitude would dwarf any costs of properly evaluating the French technology, or of changing the designs of future U.S. plants.

Ironically, the emphasis DOE placed on rapid development seems to discourage full-scale testing. This, in turn, appears to have contributed to further schedule slips. Progress on DOE’s first two vitrification facilities is as follows:

  • The West Valley Demonstration Project is $1 billion over budget, and eight years behind schedule. The West Valley, New York plant was originally scheduled to vitrify wastes from 1988 to 1990, at a total cost of $436 million. It is now scheduled to operate from 1996 to 1998 at a total cost of $1.4 billion.
  • The Savannah River Defense Waste Processing Facility could be as much as $3.9 billion over budget, and eight years behind schedule. The Savannah River, South Carolina plant, originally scheduled to open in 1988, is now scheduled to open in 1993. Some Savannah River documents indicate that the plant was expected to cost a total of $1.1 billion. The General Accounting Office now expects the plant to cost a total of $5 billion—thus a potential $3.9 billion overrun.

DOE Waste Chief Leo Duffy disputes that the original $1.1 billion figure was the projected total cost of the project. Rather, Duffy argues, it’s just the construction cost, so the estimated $3.9 billion cost overrun could be much lower. However, to date Duffy has failed to provide alternative estimates of the original total cost of the project—and therefore an alternative cost overrun figure. Thus, we are forced to rely upon other Savannah River documentation.

(It is interesting to note that Westinghouse, which operates both of these facilities, posted a 35% increase in profits from DOE contracts last year, despite these overruns.)

These delays have potentially serious implications for the environment, as well as worker and public health. Nearly one hundred million gallons of high-level waste is now stored in large, expensive, unreliable tanks. According to DOE’s original plan, much of these should have already been vitrified. The longer it takes to bring U.S. vitrification plants on-line, the longer U.S. high-level waste will have to be stored in this dangerous manner.

  • Roughly a million gallons of radioactive liquid have already leaked from DOE’s waste tanks. Westinghouse earlier estimated the 750,000 gallons of waste had leaked from the tanks at Hanford. More recently, the GAO reported that this figure does not include contaminated cooling water that likely also leaked from these tanks. A single tank may have leaked 800,000 gallons of this radioactive water.
  • Scientists believe that there is a 2% chance every year that one of these tanks will explode. Such an explosion could release thousands of gallons of high-level waste into the environment.

The French have achieved remarkable success with vitrification, in large part due to their thorough testing program. We believe that the material cited in this paper strongly suggests that the Department of Energy still does not recognize the importance of testing. DOE still has opportunities to save money through increased testing:

  • Recent delays in commencement of construction of the Hanford Waste Vitrification Plant renew the opportunity to consider alternative approaches. DOE’s principle objection to switching to a French design for Hanford was that it would delay completion of the Hanford plant. (DOE estimates that a French plant could be built at minimal extra cost.) Since disagreements between DOE, EPA and state agencies over facility safety standards may delay the commencement of construction for several years anyway, there is a real opportunity to explore French alternatives.
  • Waste treatment options of Idaho National Engineering Laboratories have not yet been defined, offering an opportunity for rigorous testing of a variety of potential solutions. Design work for an Idaho treatment plant is not scheduled to begin until 2002. This would give ample time to develop and test more refined designs, based either on preceding U.S. designs, or present French ones.

In summary, we believe available literature on vitrification strongly suggests a correlation between full-scale testing and positive results. The French have accomplished a great deal of full-scale testing as well as actual operations. DOE acknowledges that the French designs that have resulted from this process may be suitable for U.S. waste vitrification. The United States Department of Energy should carefully analyze the French strategy of full-scale testing, as well as the inexpensive, reliable plant designs this testing has produced. While this reevaluation will take time and money, it may lead to future savings of much larger magnitude.

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