Across the country, aging nuclear power plants are getting retired and coming down, generating a new and potentially vast waste stream that could head to Utah.

Some remains of California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, including its 770-ton pressure vessel, already are on train cars crossing Nevada to the nation’s largest repository for low-level, or Class A, waste in Utah’s remote West Desert.

Now the Clive facility’s operator, EnergySolutions, is looking to operate a newly proposed landfill specifically built for demolition debris, such as concrete, soils and other stuff the waste processor says kicks off so little radioactivity that is doesn’t need to take up space in the costly, federally licensed landfill.

“You’re talking office furniture and rubble,” company spokesman Mark Walker said. “The majority of this waste will have no radiation, and if it does, it is very low level, far less than the levels in the Class A landfill. [The proposed landfill] is to meet the needs of our customer, and, in this case, the waste needed to leave the state [under California law].”

In recent years, EnergySolutions has repositioned itself from a focus on waste management to plant decommissioning, covering all aspects from demolition to transportation to disposal. Access to conventional landfills is key to reducing costs and saving the limited space in the Utah company’s licensed landfill.

“You are looking for the most cost-efficient ways to decommission a plant because there is only so much money” set aside for this purpose, Walker said. “Does it make us more money?”

The answer is yes, but EnergySolutions is assuming a huge risk when it decommissions a plant because it comes with a fixed-price contract based on the sum set aside for that purpose.

“If we don’t manage that within the budget,” Walker said, “we are on the hook for getting it cleaned up.”

‘High-volume waste’

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing EnergySolutions’ proposal for a “clean transfer cell” at Clive, where it would divert much of the demolition debris coming from San Onofre and possibly other old power plants the firm could decommission someday. The application is for a so-called Class VI landfill, authorized to handle nonhazardous commercial waste from in or out of state, according to DEQ spokesman Jared Mendenhall.

“We are making sure we are not accepting waste that should be going into the Class A landfill,” Mendenhall said.

Some observers are raising red flags, arguing that material from demolished nuclear generating stations could still be dangerous.

“It is high-volume waste, but while the accumulation of radioactivity might be low, it is still worrisome,” said Dan Hirsch, retired head of University of California-Santa Cruz’s program on environmental and nuclear policy. “What kills you is not the concentration, but the amount of radioactivity.”

Now, as head of a nuclear nonprofit group called Committee to Bridge the Gap, Hirsch is a leading opponent of an “interpretative rule” proposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would allow “very low-level waste” to be disposed of in exempted landfills, within certain limits. Hirsch and other critics contend the proposed rule would open the door for potentially radioactive waste to be stored at landfills with little oversight. They are also troubled that determining what constitutes “very low-level” waste would be left up to industry.

NRC officials say concerns about demolition debris are overblown.

“It’s essentially at background levels of radiation, low enough that it can be disposed of safely in a facility that does not meet the licensing requirements that the Clive facility currently meets,” NRC spokesman David McIntyre said. This is something the commission already allows on a case-by-case basis.

In anticipation of a surge in plant decommissioning, the NRC is looking to streamline the process for approving the disposal of “very low-level waste” to conventional landfills, such as the “clean transfer cell” EnergySolutions is now proposing in Utah.

The move is coming in the form a nonlegally binding interpretation of existing rules that the NRC will discuss at its July 1 meeting and is currently open for public comment.

“It’s really a way to make a process that is already happening a little more efficient for the licensees and us,” McIntyre said, “so we won’t have to do a review every time.”

What about Utah law?

As required under Utah law for all new landfills, the Legislature has already signed off on EnergySolutions’ proposal. But the legislative resolution, passed two years ago, specifically allows only “nonradioactive” waste.

Most demolition material from nuclear plants contains some radioactivity, thereby disqualifying it from going to the proposed landfill, Hirsch argued.

But EnergySolutions is characterizing the material bound for this landfill as “potentially clean waste,” or PCW, which does not need to be fully regulated.

“Since NRC projects that the volume of PCW being generated from decommissioning to dramatically increase over the next 50 years,” its permit application states, “there is significant societal benefit to securing a unique, safe and cost-effective disposal disposition for high volume, very low radioactivity waste.”

Four years ago, EnergySolutions won the contract for San Onofre, sharing the $4.4 billion project with construction giant AECOM.

This plant near San Diego is among the nation’s largest decommissioning projects, expected to take at least 10 years and yield 13.4 million cubic feet of low-level waste. EnergySolutions sees 40% to 60% of this material, or up to 8 million cubic feet, as potentially clean.

These are “buildings and structures within a nuclear power plant’s licensed fence line which does not come into contact with radioactive material, [including] concrete barriers, paved roadways,” Walker said. “However, because they are present within the licensed footprint, they must be considered and treated as being radioactively contaminated until the absence of excess levels of radioactivity can be confirmed.”

Last year, the waste processor landed the contracts to decommission Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station, which shut down in 2016 after 43 years of operation, and Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor that experienced a partial meltdown in 1979, resulting in its permanent closure. Nearly two-thirds of the 5 million cubic feet of low-level waste from Fort Calhoun is “potentially clean,” according to EnergySolutions.

The firm expects its proposed landfill to receive about 400,000 cubic yards of waste a year.

The NRC’s proposed rule would set an exposure limit of 25 millirems of radiation per year for all the waste dumped at a single site. Utahns are naturally exposed to around 400 millirems annually, but Hirsch contends the proposed limit is still troublesome, equivalent to a dozen chest X-rays.

A key question hinges on how “potentially” clean waste is to be distinguished and segregated from “low-level” waste. EnergySolutions is expert, Walker said, in screening radiation levels of waste, developed over three decades of ensuring compliance with its license conditions.

According to Mendenhall, debris will be separated into different waste streams at the demolition sites. Upon arrival at Clive, the waste bound for the Class VI landfill will be surveyed to ensure that its radioactivity really is “very low level.”

“We are in process,” he said, “of figuring out what that [procedure] will look like.”