U.S. Department of Energy - Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Waste Management Overview

Our Nation has entered an era in which, as a result of changing world conditions, nuclear weapons production is receiving less attention while the public is expressing increasing concern about protecting human health and preserving the quality of our environment. In response to this national concern, the Department of Energy (DOE) has made waste cleanup and environmental restoration a top priority. The Department is committed to conducting these important activities in partnership with the public -- a partnership that gives the public a voice in the important decisions that must be made. To address these challenges, DOE established the Office of Environmental Management (EM) in 1989, consolidating Department-wide responsibility for waste management and cleanup under one organization -- The Office of Waste Management.

Within the EM organization, there are several major areas of responsibility, including:

Waste Management, which is responsible for managing all present and future waste streams at active DOE sites and for the processing and disposal of waste generated as a result of environmental restoration activities;
Environmental Restoration, which involves the cleanup of inactive facilities and sites contaminated by waste generated from past operations;
Science and Technology, which focuses on research and development of new and more effective technologies for EM activities that will lead to significantly reduced cleanup costs and risks;
Nuclear Materials and Facility Stabilization, which focuses on stabilizing nuclear materials and the timely and effective deactivation of surplus facilities;
Site Operations, which operates as a facilitator, ombudsman, and/or coordinator for DOE Operations Offices and field sites regarding cross-cutting issues and topics;
Planning, Policy, and Budget, which focuses on analysis of planning and policy issues, overall budget and priority-setting analyses, and public involvement activities; and
Management and Evaluation, which is responsible for administrative services, training and education, information management, cost and performance analysis, and acquisition management activities within EM.
Waste Management Mission and Goals
The mission of the Waste Management program is to treat, store, and dispose of DOE waste in a manner that is safe to humans and the environment.

The Waste Management program is responsible for waste management activities at operating DOE sites and for managing waste generated by environmental restoration activities. Other goals include minimizing the waste generated by DOE, and pursuing compliance with all applicable environmental regulations. The Waste Management program must also pursue the goal of providing safe, adequate treatment and disposal facilities for future use. In order to understand the complexity of DOE's challenges, it is important to understand the types of waste that must be managed. These wastes range from highly radioactive and toxic wastes that must be managed with extreme caution to wastes that can be managed with a high degree of confidence. The Waste Management program is responsible for the following types of material:

High-level radioactive waste (the highly radioactive portion of the waste resulting from previous DOE nuclear fuel reprocessing activities);
Low-level radioactive waste (radioactively contaminated rags, filters, tools, equipment, and protective clothing);
Transuranic radioactive waste (waste contaminated with isotopes that are heavier than uranium, have half-lives greater than 20 years, and are generated primarily during research and development, plutonium recovery, weapons manufacturing, and decontamination and decommissioning);
Hazardous waste (chemicals, explosives, solvents, pesticides, etc. as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency);
Mixed waste (containing a wide variety of both radioactive and hazardous components); and
Other wastes (such as PCBs and non-hazardous solid and liquid wastes).
Note: Spent nuclear fuel and other fissile materials are managed by a separate organization.

Waste Management Functions
To achieve its goals, the Waste Management program focuses on three major waste management functions: storage, treatment, and disposal.

 Waste storage is an interim measure. Many DOE sites and installations store radioactive waste temporarily prior to treatment or until disposal sites can accept the waste. Storage methods, which include containment in tanks, metal drums, and above-ground concrete vaults, are determined by waste type. All of DOE's storage facilities are engineered to protect the environment and personnel from contamination. DOE and its Federal and state regulators continually monitor storage facilities to evaluate compliance with all regulatory requirements.

 In general, waste must be treated to prepare it for disposal. Treatment methods reduce a waste's toxicity and volume, change its physical form, or make it safer to dispose in compliance with environmental regulations. Selection of treatment methods depends on the quantity and form of the waste material.

Some waste, after being treated, can be disposed as non-hazardous waste. Other wastes require more elaborate treatment methods. Liquid and semi-liquid radioactive wastes can be solidified by techniques such as vitrification and calcining. For example, the vitrification process converts high-level liquid waste into an insoluble form by mixing the waste with molten glass particles. Other wastes, such as hazardous and mixed wastes can be reduced in volume through processes such as compaction or incineration. Mixed wastes pose a significant challenge, because sufficient treatment technologies and capacity do not exist for some of these wastes. By working together, DOE and its Federal and state regulators have reached agreement on the long-term approach for mixed waste treatment at DOE sites.

 The final step in the waste management process is waste disposal, the safe and secure isolation of waste. DOE plans to dispose of high-level and transuranic wastes in deep geologic repositories located thousands of feet below ground. After being appropriately and safely stabilized and packaged, low-level waste is disposed through shallow land burial in dry areas and in above-ground, sealed concrete vaults in humid or wet areas. The disposal method used for mixed waste depends on the treatment applied and the resulting waste characteristics. DOE uses licensed commercial facilities to treat and dispose of its hazardous wastes. Non-hazardous wastes are generally disposed in sanitary landfills at or near the DOE sites.

Waste Management Challenges
Waste management activities must be conducted in compliance with a number of Federal, state, and local laws and regulations. The Waste Management program is working to accomplish its mission and to meet the requirements of this regulatory environment.

Achieving public confidence and trust is another high priority. The Waste Management program involves the public in the decisions it makes by providing opportunities for ongoing participation both in facility issues and national decisions.

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