Failed Nuclear Waster Plan Called 'Explosive'

WASHINGTON - After 16 years and $489 million, the Department of Energy's (DOE) plan for separating millions of gallons of liquid 'high-level' from 'low-level' radioactive waste has been scrapped, 'because it produces explosive gases.'

The failed process produces benzene gas that will explode in certain concentrations.  The DOE has known about the problem since 1983 when more benzene was produced than could be measured with instruments. The DOE is firing Westinghouse, the contractor it blames for the failure.

The government's Savannah River Site in South Carolina has about 34 million gallons of waste held in 51 giant, aging underground tanks that are 'vulnerable to earthquakes.'  In Washington State, at Hanford, 177 tanks hold 54 million gallons of similar liquid rad wastes.

The plan was to treat the dissolved radioactive cesium in the tanks using chemicals, causing the highly radioactive elements to sink to the bottom.  The bottom waste, radioactive for thousands of years, would then have been collected and 'vitrified' or turned into 'glass logs.'

Westinghouse has suggested another method it says allows a faster process and produces less benzene. Cost: $1 billion.

The DOE estimates that it needs to fabricate 5,200 remotely-handled waste 'logs,' each costing $2.6 to $3.3 million, at a total of between $13.6 and $17.4 billion - not including the $2 billion to build the vitrification facility.

-New York Times, June 2, 1999; General Accounting Office, RCED-99-69, April 30, 1999.