Managing the world’s largest nuclear waste cleanup
Profile of Inés R. Triay, Assistant Secretary, Environmental Management at the U.S. Department of Energy
During the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear stockpile reached more than 30,000 nuclear weapons. Research and production of these weapons resulted in large volumes of nuclear waste—some of the most dangerous materials known to mankind—posing significant environmental risks and challenges. “The U.S. Department of Energy has under its purview the Environmental Management program, which is responsible for cleaning up the legacy of the Cold War,” says Dr. Inés Triay, assistant secretary, Environmental Management within the U.S. Department of Energy. She leads an office charged with the safe and complete cleanup of the environmental legacy brought about from five decades of nuclear weapons development and government-sponsored nuclear energy research. “We manage the largest environmental cleanup effort in the world. Originally, we had two million acres at 108 sites in 35 states. We work in very challenging environments with hazardous and dangerous material, solving some of the most complex technical problems in the environmental field today,” says Triay. She notes that her job is “to make sure that the cleanup is conducted in a safe, secure, and compliant manner. It is to make sure that we continue to be vigilant about the life cycle cost of this cleanup. This cleanup extends decades; it is my job to come up with strategic options to shorten that time frame that we’re going to need in order to ensure the effective cleanup.”
The cleanup encompasses radioactive wastes, spent nuclear fuel, excess plutonium and uranium, thousands of contaminated facilities, and contaminated soil and groundwater. EM has identified radioactive tank waste processing as one of its key priorities. This involves constructing and operating facilities that stabilize radioactive liquid tank waste and treat it into a safe, stable form for disposition. This is such a challenging problem,” explains Dr. Triay. “We have 88 million gallons of highly radioactive waste. This waste is in underground tanks, some containing on the order of a million gallons….We have these underground tanks in three main places: Savannah River site in South Carolina, our Hanford site in Washington state, and our Idaho site.” According to Triay, EM continues to move forward and clear hurdles in finalizing the design, construction, and operation of three unique and complex tank waste processing plants. “The bottom line is: these facilities combine for a total project cost of over $14 billion. It is imperative that we stick to the total project cost and duration for these projects, delivering on time and within costs, as based on the current scope and scale. This particular waste is the highest risk of our program; it is imperative that we do this job right,” underscores Triay.
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act) provided the EM program with $6 billion above its normal appropriation. Seventeen sites in 12 states are receiving Recovery Act funding. The department selected areas where the projects were “shovel-ready”—projects with scope, cost, and duration already established. “The second thing that we did,” explains Triay, “was to choose projects that have an established regulatory framework. We also identified projects with proven technologies, existing contract vehicles, and proven performance and success.” Those projects focus on accelerating cleanup of soil and groundwater, transportation and disposal of waste, and cleaning and demolishing of nuclear weapons facilities. “We endeavor to keep that life cycle cost managed and validated. We want to ensure that we can demonstrate to Congress and the taxpayers that this investment [Recovery Act funds] actually reduces the life cycle cost. We want to demonstrate that the return on investment of having the work done earlier is a significant benefit,” says Triay. “With the Recovery Act funds, we envisioned a portfolio that is going to reduce the footprint by about 40 to 50 percent by 2011.”
In order to achieve this ambitious goal, Triay believes that the most important thing is to have a committed, focused, and technically capable staff. “It is all about the people,” declares Triay, “They are the most prized resource of an organization like ours, and for that reason, it is always a challenge to recruit and retain the very best. I think that, for those who want to work in science and public service, the Department of Energy, under the leadership of Secretary Chu, is a perfect place to explore those two passions.”