BOISE, Idaho — Problems plaguing a nuclear waste treatment plant in eastern Idaho appear to be solved, U.S. officials said Thursday, and converting high-level liquid waste into safer, more easily managed solid material could start early next year.
Joel Case of the U.S. Department of Energy said a test startup without waste will begin next week at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at the Energy Department’s 890-square-mile site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.
“I’m very confident that we can fix the actual process issues,” he said during a meeting of the Idaho Cleanup Project Citizens Advisory Board.
The 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing, radioactive waste comes from processing spent nuclear fuel to recover highly enriched uranium. The waste is in tanks above a giant aquifer that supplies water to cities and farms in the region.
The waste has been a sore spot between Idaho and the Energy Department for years, Case said, and the federal agency is paying $6,000 in fines a day for missing a deadline to transform the liquid waste into solid material as stipulated in a 1995 agreement that was the culmination of a series of federal lawsuits.
Idaho, because of the missed 2013 deadline, is preventing the Energy Department from bringing in research quantities of spent nuclear fuel to be studied at the lab. Scientists say the spent fuel is needed to develop new technologies for the next wave of nuclear reactors that’s part of a U.S. strategy to expand nuclear power and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The prohibition could also damage the lab’s status as one of the nation’s top nuclear research labs, Energy Department officials have said. Additionally, the lab is one of the state’s largest employers and a huge economic driver, especially in eastern Idaho.