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US selects new cleanup contractor for Idaho nuclear site

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a new $6.4 billion contract to clean up nuclear waste at its sprawling site in Idaho, which includes a national laboratory that does nuclear research.

The Energy Department announced Friday that the 10-year Idaho Cleanup Project contract went to the Tullahoma, Tennessee-based Idaho Environmental Coalition, replacing Fluor Idaho.

A 1995 settlement agreement between the Energy Department and the state requires nuclear waste to be cleaned up at the site that sits above a giant aquifer supplying water to farms and cities in the region.

“The ICP contract exemplifies DOE’s commitment to continue supporting a highly-skilled, diverse workforce that provides approximately 1,900 jobs that pay prevailing wages in safe and healthy workplaces,” the Energy Department said in a statement.

The Energy Department said it received five proposals and that the best value was the Idaho Environmental Coalition, which includes Jacobs Technology Inc. and North Wind Portage. The agency didn’t name the others that sought the contract.

The 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) site is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Idaho Falls and includes the Idaho National Laboratory. The lab area sits atop the Lake Erie-sized Snake River Plain Aquifer, which started becoming contaminated from the nuclear site in 1952, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report released last year.

The report said contamination levels at all but a handful of nearly 180 wells are below acceptable standards for drinking water set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report cited cleanup efforts at the site as helping improve the aquifer.

Contamination at the site reached the aquifer through injection wells, unlined percolation ponds, pits where radioactive material from other states was dumped, and accidental spills. All those happened mainly during the Cold War era before environmental regulations were in place.

In 1989, the area was added to the National Priorities List for Uncontrolled Hazardous Waste Sites, becoming a Superfund site.

The 1995 settlement leading to cleanup of the site followed a series of court battles between Idaho and the Energy Department amid concerns the state was becoming a nuclear waste dump.

One of the top cleanup goals is converting 900,000 gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored in tanks into more manageable solid waste. The Energy Department initially had a 2012 deadline to do that. It built the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at a cost of some $600 million to convert the liquid waste, but it has so far has run into problems and not been able to convert the waste.

The missed deadline, which has been extended multiple times, means the Energy Department is violating the 1995 agreement.

Penalties include fines and preventing research quantities of spent nuclear fuel from entering the state.

Scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory say they need that research spent fuel to help create the next generation of safer commercial nuclear reactors that could help fight global warming.

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