NEF Will Generate Un-Disposable Waste
The National Enrichment Facility (NEF) will generate up to 200 million tons of depleted uranium (DU) waste over its lifetime for which there is no known disposal path. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently issued a joint license for both the construction and operation of NEF before the issue of waste disposal had been resolved. The DU waste must remain on site until NRC decides on a disposal policy.
NEF is a uranium enrichment facility, located near Eunice, New Mexico. It will produce low-enriched uranium by heating a chemical compound called uranium hexaflouride into gas and separating the different uranium isotopes. NEF will generate both enriched uranium and chemically contaminated DU waste.
Prior to final disposal, the chemically contaminated waste must be sent to a waste conversion plant, which will separate the DU from the hexafluoride. After conversion, the DU waste must be shipped for permanent disposal. Although construction of NEF has already begun, there is no waste conversion plant and no plan or facility for safe permanent disposal of the DU. The NRC has not yet determined what type of disposal is necessary.
Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, was an expert witness during the NEF licensing hearing. Dr. Makhijani said, the license was issued on a predetermined timetable, which did not allow critical issues to be resolved.
Dr. Makhijani recently testified about the waste issues before the Rocky Mountain Low-Level Radioactive Waste Board, a multi-state board established by Congress to manage the low-level radioactive waste generated within each state's borders.
DU waste has been classified as low-level waste, however, appropriate disposal methods for the large quantities of DU waste generated by enrichment plants was never determined. During the NEF licensing process, NRC required that a separate proceeding be held to determine this disposal path.
The owners of NEF state that their waste will be appropriate for shallow burial. However, Dr. Makhijani testified that this conclusion was not based on sound science. He stated that for this waste to be disposed of safely, it would require a deep geological repository.
Leonard Slosky, executive director of the waste board, felt that Dr. Makhijani's testimony was not relevant to the board, as it does not regulate the health and safety of waste disposal. Slosky said, "It doesn't really matter to this board whether the NRC decides to call [the waste] blue elephants."
Dr. Makhijani explained that there was no where for the waste to go. Before accepting the waste, any conversion plant will require a final disposal path. As of yet, the classification has not been determined, nor does he believe there is any safe and appropriate site available. Dr. Makhijani said, "there is no future path in the current low-level waste universe. Un-disposable waste is in your lap."
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry, chair of the board, said, "Your comments are well taken and well received, speaking for New Mexico." He stated his commitment to continue working with Dr. Makhijani and NEF until the issue of waste disposal has been resolved.