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Tests planned on Idaho nuclear waste treatment component

A small-scale version of a key component of an eastern Idaho radioactive waste treatment facility that has so far failed to operate will be tested in Colorado, federal officials said Dec. 29.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Engineers at Hazen Research near Denver in January will start testing a smaller replica of the primary reaction vessel that’s part of the $600 million Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The failure of the treatment facility to process 900,000 gallons of high-level nuclear waste stored at the 890-square-mile Energy Department site in eastern Idaho has caused the federal agency to violate a 1995 agreement with Idaho.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden as a result is refusing to allow research quantities of spent nuclear fuel from entering the state to be tested at the laboratory. He applauded the plan released on Dec. 29.

“I’m encouraged by this development and hopeful the Department of Energy will soon find an effective way to treat this waste,” Wasden said in a statement to The Associated Press. “I see it as a very positive step in our cooperative effort to move forward.”

The Energy Department initially had a 2012 deadline based on the 1995 agreement to deal with the liquid waste that’s stored in tanks above a giant aquifer that supplies water to cities and farms in the region. But that deadline has been extended multiple times, and was most recently missed in September after the federal agency announced scientists couldn’t achieve a stable operation at the facility to treat the waste.

The continued failure is a blow to the federal agency’s desire to bring in research shipments of spent commercial nuclear fuel to the lab in Idaho, one of 17 Department of Energy labs in the nation and the primary lab for nuclear research.

One shipment has already been canceled because of missed deadlines, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars a year to the area.

The federal agency earlier this year pulled in experts for a summit and workshop to try to solve problems at the treatment plant.

On Dec. 29, it said the main problem involves a cylindrical vessel filled with billions of tiny sand-like particles that is heated to 1,200 degrees. The plan is to inject the liquid radioactive waste so that it coats the tiny particles that would ultimately be sealed in stainless steel canisters.

However, simulated waste used in practice runs coated the inside of the cylinder causing a bark-like substance to form, disrupting the process.

Officials hope to solve that problem in Colorado.

“Testing at Hazen seeks to determine the ideal methodology for controlling particle size and other parameters affecting the bark formation rate,” the agency said. “Subsequent Hazen tests will further refine the operating boundaries for the next round of planned” tests at the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit in Idaho.

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