What's next for AMWTP?

February 15, 2018

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For 14 years now, some 700 employees and a hydraulic ram capable of applying 4 million pounds of pressure have been sorting, crushing, and packing waste into secure, efficiently-stored shipments. It’s a complicated operation, but one which has performed well according to projections.

On a chilly April morning in 1954, a truck loaded with radioactive waste drove down a dusty road in the Idaho desert.  It was there to deposit the first of many loads of transuranic material that would continue for 16 years until 1970 - the first shipments were buried in pits and trenches, while later shipments were placed on asphalt pads and covered with dirt. This waste wasn’t generated in Idaho and, some would argue, we were nowhere near equipped to take it. It came from Rocky Flats in Colorado, where the Department of Energy built plutonium triggers for the country’s nuclear arsenal. 

When it was all said and done, 65,000 cubic meters of waste had been offloaded - the highest concentration of nuclear waste in the country - in barrels and bins, decaying from the moment they were first placed there.  What was once Colorado’s problem became ours. 

As Idahoans tend to do, many years later we set out to solve the problem and negotiated the Idaho Settlement Agreement. Even so, it would take nine more years before the processing of this waste would begin.  Resolving the excavation, packaging, transportation, and disposal dilemma didn’t come quickly or inexpensively. In 2004, the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant (AMWTP) began operations.

For 14 years now, some 700 employees and a hydraulic ram capable of applying 4 million pounds of pressure have been sorting, crushing, and packing waste into secure, efficiently-stored shipments. It’s a complicated operation, but one which has performed well according to projections. So well, in fact, that as we start 2018, all expectations are that the last of the 65,000 cubic meters of stored waste will be processed by the end of the year - which begs the question - “what’s next for AMWTP?”

There are 14 other sites in the DOE Complex, each of which has varying amounts of similar waste in need of treatment.  All together about 11,000 cubic meters remain, at least two-thirds of which is located at the Hanford site.  Conveniently, AMWTP lies geographically right in between Hanford and the Waste Isolation Treatment Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

While estimates have the total cost of the AMWTP facility around $560 million, today it’s likely that it would cost a billion dollars to duplicate the facility, not to mention an intangible amount of expertise and experience in labor force. The supercompactor has operated for more than 100,000 hours nearly flawlessly, and a recent $10 million upgrade to the sorting arm makes it ever more effective.

A 2010 Inspector General’s audit compared the estimated cost of processing, transportation, and disposal on site at Hanford versus using the highly automated system at AMWTP and found that doing so could save the taxpayers $25 million.

The only hiccup is that while processing has happened smoothly, shipping for disposal has been another story. If we turn on the inflow, we may find ourselves with no ability to control the outflow. The 2014 incidents at WIPP caused the facility to shut down until April of 2017 and is only now accepting new shipments at a trickle. Agreeing to handle the waste is a risk, but one that is likely justified by the judicious use of existing resources.

Now that we’re equipped to take it, it just seems right that some chilly morning in the spring of 2019, a truck loaded with radioactive waste from Hanford should drive down a well-paved road to a very capably-manned AMWTP facility and safely unload the material for processing before its ultimate disposal at WIPP.  At this point there’s nowhere in the country that has the facilities or could handle it with the experience and expertise of the people at AMWTP.