WASHINGTON -- Tanks containing radioactive waste at the U.S. Department of Energy Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina, should not necessarily be sealed as soon as the bulk of the waste has been removed, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Postponing closure of tanks with difficult-to-remove residual wastes for five to 10 years would give DOE time to overcome obstacles to using emerging technologies that could remove more of the residual waste and better immobilize what is left in the tanks. This could be done without delaying final closure of the "tank farm," added the committee that wrote the report.
Once the bulk of the radioactive waste is removed from tanks at the Savannah River Site, DOE plans to fill the tanks with grout to close most of them permanently. But given that the small amount of residual waste left in the tanks has a much lower likelihood of causing significant radioactive contamination of the environment, the department need not rush to grout all the tanks -- a step that is practically irreversible. Instead, the committee urged DOE and South Carolina to decouple the schedules for cleaning the tanks and sealing them, timelines that appear to be linked under a Federal Facility Agreement. Doing so will allow DOE to use emerging technologies to enhance tank cleanup, improve how the residual waste is immobilized, and better prevent water from seeping into closed tanks.
On the other hand, tank closure does not have to be delayed if there is very little residual waste or if special circumstances warrant closure, the committee said. It added that revising the closure schedule for tanks with insoluble wastes does not need to affect previously agreed-upon milestones for final closing of the tanks. In fact, if new technologies become available, they may speed up tank cleanup and closure, possibly leaving less waste behind.
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