Protests halt construction of BNFL’s Idaho waste incinerator

Sustained protests by local campaigners have forced the US Department of Energy (DoE) to halt plans to build an incinerator to treat nuclear waste stored at the department's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL).

The decision was made after a residents protest group, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free (KYNF), brought a $1bn class action against the project. The campaigners claimed that radioactive and toxic dust from the plant could have been blown onto Yellowstone National Park, 90 miles (145km) from the proposed site.

As part of its agreement with KYNF, the DoE has also committed to the goal of identifying environmentally sound alternatives to incineration across the US.

KYNF Executive Director Tom Patricelli. “The magnitude of this victory cannot be overstated,” he said. “Not only have we stopped the INEEL incinerator in its tracks, we’ve struck a blow against nuclear waste incineration nationwide.”

Under the conditions of the agreement, the protesters are permitted to introduce a petition to debar the British company, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) from acting as a contractor for the DoE. The petition to debar BNFL as a DOE contractor was presented to the Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, on March 23.

BNFL has been in crisis since last September when falsification of safety data accompanying a MOX fuel shipment to Japan was uncovered. Since then, the company has admitted further safety infractions. In January, the Nuclear Installations released a report criticising BNFL’s safety management at its Sellafield site in Cumbria. A decision on partial privatisation of BNFL will now not be considered till 2002 (see related stories in European and UK sections of this week’s news).

Construction of waste facilities at the site must still go ahead because the DoE is legally bound to treat and remove 65,000m3 of waste from Idaho by 2018. The DoE says it felt it could delay the construction of the incinerator because most of the waste was not intended for incineration.

Since the incinerator portion of the plant will now be deferred, the DoE will apply to the State and the EPA for a partial permit allowing it to begin construction on an advanced mixed waste treatment facility at INEEL to process the bulk of the transuranic waste stored at the site. The DoE hopes construction can begin in May. The cost of building the advanced mixed waste treatment facility is expected to exceed $500 million and be operational by March 2003. However, KYNF say the DoE will not pursue the permits required to build the plutonium incinerator.

BNFL stresses that the DoE’s decision does not mean it has lost the Idaho contract, nor that the contract has been suspended. A BNFL spokesperson told edie that the company will continue to treat the 65,000m3 of mixed waste. KYNF says that between 83% and 97% of the waste that was slated for incineration will be reduced in volume by supercompaction, packaged, and shipped to a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Asked if the decision was an attack on a foreign firm in a bid to win environmental credibility, a DoE spokesperson told edie: “That’s really the wrong interpretation. This is a decision that allows the project to get under way. The incinerator portion is only a $21 million part of the whole project. You could say that BNFL was a target for those who oppose the project, but you’re wrong if you think the Department’s decision was influenced by events overseas.”

The BNFL spokesperson took a similar line, telling edie that there was no longer a need for an incinerator at the site. “When the contract came into being, there was a need for an incinerator. That was quite a long time ago and things have moved on. Now the New Mexico plant is up and running and will treat the majority of the waste.”

The DoE has also said that a committee will be formed to assess alternatives to incineration. The panel will report its recommendations to the Richardson in December. The DoE will invite the governors of Idaho and Wyoming, and public interest groups, including KYNF, to nominate members to the panel.

KYNF points out that the DoE cannot pursue any aspect of the incinerator project prior to the final conclusions of the panel and that any chance of the DoE trying to resurrect the incinerator was slim. “It will take at least a year or more to put that panel together and come up with conclusions,” said Gerry Spence, the lead attorney in KYNF’s federal lawsuit. “Throughout that process, we will use our influence to make sure that incineration is completely ruled out as a viable means of treating this waste. We believe the incinerator is gone for good, but if the DOE even hints at trying to revive this absurd project, we will be on them like mad dogs.”

KYNF President Berte Hirschfield indicated that the group’s work would continue. “Now that DOE has committed to finding environmentally sound alternatives to incineration, it should immediately suspend operation of the high level waste calciner at INEEL. It is another dangerous operation that must be stopped,” she said.

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