Originally created 05/15/98

SRS weighs waste system alternatives



Some sent e-mails, others presented suggestions in brainstorming sessions involving experts from all across the country.

Five months after Savannah River Site declared unworkable a $550 million waste treatment system known as the In-Tank Precipitation Facility, officials say they're on their way to finding a solution.

The list of alternatives to the troubled system has been narrowed from 130 to 18. That number is expected to drop to five next month when the first "rigorous" evaluation begins, said Austin Scott, vice president and general manager of Westinghouse Savannah River Co.'s high-level waste division.

"We're being very cautious and making sure we're very objective," he said Thursday. "We know we're going to have to submit this to considerable scrutiny."

The In-Tank Precipitation Facility was built to handle some of the most dangerous liquid waste Cold War bomb factories left behind. About 90 percent of the 34 million gallons stored at SRS was slated to be treated there.

But in January, Westinghouse notified the Department of Energy it was unable to resolve a chemical problem that had long plagued the system. That was 15 years after work began, and years after some critics first voiced concerns about the system's viability.

Mr. Austin said Thursday there is a "strong possibility" a completely new system must be built to handle the waste, although a final recommendation is still months away.

A new system could take several years to construct and approve. So far, however, the hold-up is not causing delays in the overall treatment of SRS' high-level waste -- the plant's top cleanup priority.

The Defense Waste Processing Facility, where liquids with the highest concentration of radionuclides are converted into stable glass, still has enough material to process before it must tackle the batch that needed pretreatment at the In-Tank Precipitation Facility.

It will be several more years before work would slow down at the glass factory for lack of material, officials say.

The high-level waste is stored in underground tanks that must be emptied out to make sure the environment is protected. It will remain dangerous for thousands of years, which is why the government hopes to one day bury the "glassified" material deep inside a mountain in Nevada.