Liquid nuclear waste containing bomb-grade highly enriched uranium would be trucked from Canada for disposal at Savannah River Site under a first-of-its-kind proposal under development by the National Nuclear Security Administration and other agencies.
The material from Atomic Energy Canada Limited’s Chalk River Laboratory is part of a nonproliferation effort aimed at recovering U.S. origin highly enriched uranium distributed to research facilities in other countries. SRS confirmed at a recent citizens advisory board meeting that planning for such a shipment is underway.
The Canadian lab has used this uranium for decades to produce molybdenum-99, a source of technetium used medical diagnostic procedures. The process involves dissolving targets in acid, which yields a highly radioactive waste that contains residual highly enriched uranium.
Transporting highly radioactive liquid waste has never been attempted, according to environmental groups who are seeking an environmental impact study before the material can be moved.
“This proposed shipment of liquid high-level waste appears to be unprecedented,” said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
“This proposal would involve liquid high-level waste, a type of material already stored in the tanks at SRS,” he said. “But this waste has weapons-grade uranium in it, unlike the SRS high-level liquid waste. And none of the existing high level waste at SRS has ever been shipped over highways.
Spent nuclear fuel and other solid research reactor material with enriched uranium has been brought to the South Carolina site’s L Area for storage in large tanks, but the liquid waste from Canada would be sent instead to H Canyon, the U.S. Energy Department’s separations facility that processes nuclear materials.
At H Canyon, the liquid – estimated at 23,000 liters – would be blended down to low enriched uranium that would be used to produce fuel for commercial power reactors.
One issue regarding the transport involves a request to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to amend the criteria for a nuclear material transport cask to allow liquid waste containing highly enriched uranium.
According to a spokesperson at the NRC’s Maryland headquarters, an application was filed Dec. 28 by NAC International, a Norcross, Ga., nuclear transport contractor, seeking amendments to the type of material it can transport in specially designed nuclear materials casks.
“The request would authorize the cask to carry four containers, each holding 17 gallons apiece, of liquid highly enriched uranyl nitrate liquid,” the spokesperson said.
Although the containers have been used to transport solid highly enriched uranium and liquid low enriched uranium, “to our knowledge we haven’t been asked before to certify a transport cask for this type of material,” the spokesperson said.
The request remains under review and the applicant has asked NRC for a decision by Aug. 1.
Although recovery of the material from Canada is part of a U.S. nonproliferation strategy, Clements said the liquid waste would be difficult to use for a bomb or terrorism purposes.
“To make a bomb, you’d have to get a hold of a lot of this, and then process it,” he said. “That’s why I’m questioning whether it’s a proliferation risk.”
A more likely driver, he said, is the quest to bring new missions to Savannah River Site’s H Canyon and preserve the facility’s 800 jobs.
“It also solves a problem for Canada, definitely, with them wanting to get rid of their waste,” Clements said.
Requests for an environmental assessment are being submitted to officials in Canada and to U.S. authorities asking, among other things, that risks associated with packaging, traffic accidents, theft, terrorism and other scenarios be fully evaluated.
“The risk of an accident in the unprecedented shipment of liquid high-level waste has a low probability but the impacts of any accident could be high,” Clements said. “That risk, along with how the material would be processed at SRS and how much waste would result, are main reasons that a full Supplemental EIS is needed.”