Department of Energy to shut down Idaho nuclear waste treatment project, deemed not to be cost-effective

In this 2015 file photo, nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls. Federal officials will shut down a nuclear waste treatment project at the site after determining it would not be economically feasible.
(Keith Ridler / Associated Press)

Federal officials will shut down an Idaho nuclear waste treatment project after determining it would not be economically feasible to bring in radioactive waste from other states.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in documents made public this week that the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, which employs 650 workers, will end next year.

Officials said workers are wrapping up processing 85,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste at the department’s 890-square-mile site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls.


A $500-million treatment plant handles transuranic waste that includes work clothing, rags, machine parts and tools that have been contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements. Transuranic wastes take much longer to decay and are the most radioactive hazard in high-level waste after 1,000 years, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Energy Department said that before the cleanup began, Idaho had the largest stockpile of transuranic waste of any of the agency’s facilities. Court battles between Idaho and the federal government culminated with a 1995 agreement requiring the Energy Department to clean up the Idaho site.

The Idaho treatment plant compacts the transuranic waste, making it easier to ship and put into long-term storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Federal officials earlier this year floated the idea of keeping the $500-million treatment plant running in Idaho with waste from other states. The bulk of that would have been 8,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste from a former nuclear weapons production area in Hanford, Wash.

Local officials and politicians generally supported the idea because of the good-paying jobs. The Snake River Alliance, an Idaho-based nuclear watchdog group, said it had concerns the nuclear waste brought to Idaho would never leave.

A 38-page economic analysis the Department of Energy completed in August and released this week found that “it does not appear to be cost effective due to packaging and transportation challenges in shipping waste” to Idaho.


“As work at the facility will continue into 2019, no immediate workforce impacts are anticipated,” the agency said in an email Friday. The Energy Department “recognizes the contribution of this facility and its employees to DOE’s cleanup mission and looks forward to applying the knowledge gained and experience of the workforce to other key activities at the Idaho site.”

The agency said it would also consider voluntary separation incentives for workers.

With the Idaho treatment plant scheduled to shut down, it’s not clear how the transuranic waste at Hanford and other sites will be dealt with.

The Energy Department “will continue to work to ensure a path forward for packaging and certification of TRU [transuranic] waste at Hanford and other sites,” the agency said in the email to the Associated Press.