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Rehabilitating a Nuclear Research Site

At the Department of Energy’s Idaho Site, a massive environmental cleanup is underway to reduce the risks from decades of nuclear weapons research and development material.
By Bill Badger

Six nuclear research reactor facilities (including the Engineering Test Reactor pictured above) have been decommissioned and demolished at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory as part of a massive ongoing environmental cleanup project.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho Site is undergoing extensive environmental cleanup of an 890-mi² area that is contaminated with legacy wastes generated from World War II-era conventional weapons testing, government-owned reactors, spent fuel reprocessing, and nuclear and alternative energy research.

Established in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station 45-mi west of Idaho Falls, Idaho, the high-desert site was the ideal location for design, construction and testing of 52 civilian and defense prototype and first-of-a-kind nuclear reactors.

Much of the technology of the modern nuclear reactor was developed at the Idaho Site—including the first use of nuclear fission to produce electricity and the development of the power plant for the world’s first nuclear submarine. Over time, the mission of the laboratory has evolved into biotechnology, energy and materials research, and conservation and renewable energy. Today’s demands are being met in nuclear and energy research, science and national defense.


When DOE’s Environmental Management Program was established in the late 1980s, there were more than 100 such sites overall. Varying in size, these sites comprised a total DOE Weapon’s Complex footprint of 3,125-mi². Today, eradicating the environmental legacy from six decades of nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy research involves numerous challenges: stabilization and consolidation of nuclear materials; safe storage of spent nuclear fuel; disposition of solid radioactive wastes; remediation of contaminated soil and water; and deactivation and decommissioning of radioactively contaminated facilities.

DOE estimates that the total cost to clean up the nuclear weapons complex over several decades will end up being approximately $264 billion. It is considered the largest environment cleanup program in the world.


In 2005, CH2M HILL, as managing partner of CH2M-WG Idaho (CWI) LLC, was awarded the $2.9 billion Idaho Cleanup Project (ICP) by DOE for nuclear operations. Work was to comprise reactor and fuel reprocessing facility decommissioning, radioactive waste treatment, transportation and storage operations, environmental remediation and spent nuclear fuel management.

The Idaho Cleanup Project is responsible for 12.7-T of light water breeder reactor fuel. It has completed the transfer of all 3,186 spent nuclear fuel units from wet storage in basins to safer dry storage in casks, ahead of the milestone date.

The site’s primary mission remains the development of safe, competitive and sustainable energy systems and unique national and homeland security capabilities. The cleanup mission, however, endeavors to reduce risk to workers, the public and the environment, and to protect the Snake River Plain Aquifer, which is the sole drinking water source for more than 300,000 eastern and southern Idaho residents.

CWI’s first contract, from 2005 to 2012, accelerated cleanup through a commitment to reduce the legacy footprint of the site while safely and cost effectively maximizing the reduction of environmental, safety and health risks.

At the Idaho Site, taxpayer investment yielded measurable value. For every dollar spent on cleanup, 20 percent of additional work was achieved. The workforce found fresh ways to complete work faster, smarter and cheaper. For every $1 million invested in the cleanup, CWI delivered $1.2 million in work—ultimately delivering the project $520 million under budget. DOE’s reinvestment of those dollars into other environmental priorities is bringing the cleanup vision for the Idaho Site closer to reality.

The innovation and efficiencies created by the ICP workforce has led to a threeyear extension of the contract. ICP-II extends CWI’s current period of performance from Sept. 30, 2012, through Sept. 30, 2015—with an anticipated value of $730 million.


The United States spent billions to produce nuclear weapons and commercialize nuclear power throughout the Cold War. It is now spending billions more to clean up the environmental impact left behind. The focus on proper characterization, packaging, transportation and disposal of the wastes generated throughout the Cold War and during cleanup is a major priority for DOE and regulators.

Several types of wastes are handled at the project site including sanitary, hazardous and radioactive wastes. Radioactive wastes at defense cleanup sites generally are classified as transuranic (TRU), lowlevel and high-level. Spent nuclear fuel, although technically not a waste since it can be recycled, also is managed at DOE and commercial nuclear sites. In addition, the site is responsible for treating 900,000- gal of sodium-bearing waste stored in underground tanks. The tanks contained radioactive liquid waste generated from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and decontamination and decommissioning activities. To treat the waste, a facility was constructed that will use steam-reforming technology to convert liquid radioactive and hazardous constituents into a more stable form for disposal.

TRU waste is characterized, packaged and transported from the Idaho Site to the DOE-operated Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. To date, more than 6,270-M3 of contact-handled TRU waste and 216 shipments of remote-handled TRU waste has been sent.

To fulfill its agreement with the State of Idaho, DOE must exhume, package and dispose of 7,485-M³ of targeted waste from a combined area of about 5.7-acres at the Idaho National Laboratory nuclear testing site.

This massive cleanup assignment also includes a buried waste retrieval effort known as the Accelerated Retrieval Project. This work involves the retrieval, identification, repackaging and disposition of targeted radioactive waste. And for nearly two decades, one buried waste trench in particular was the poster child for environmental remediation failure.

Pit 9 originally was used from 1967 to 1969 as a disposal site for radioactive contaminated wastes generated from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado. In the early 1990s, Pit 9 was proposed for cleanup under the Superfund program. Initial cleanup attempts were mired in cost overruns, technology challenges, missed schedules and eventually a lawsuit.

In 2004, DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the State of Idaho decided to remediate a small portion of Pit 9 in a demonstration project called the Glovebox Excavator Method (GEM). An enclosure was constructed over the southern end of Pit 9 and a remotelyoperated backhoe excavated about 75-yd³ of material. This targeted waste retrieval approach became the basis for a 2008 Record of Decision signed by DOE, EPA and Idaho. The agreement authorized shipment of 7,485-M³ of targeted buried radioactive waste for offsite disposal from a combined area of 5.69-acres within the 97-acre Radioactive Waste Management Complex’s Subsurface Disposal Area.


Building on the lessons learned from the GEM project—as well as efficiencies and rapid progress learned from CWI’s four other buried waste retrieval projects— crews were able to construct an exhumation facility designed to protect workers and the environment from airborne contaminants in waste exhumation areas.

The nine-month Pit 9 exhumation involved more than 2,000 entries into radiological and contamination areas. Not a single radiological incident or safety event occurred. And the project was completed one year ahead of schedule and $10 million under budget. Total cost of the Pit 9 remediation was just $34 million, considerably below earlier estimates that reached as high as half a billion dollars.

As with any project, safe and environmentally sound execution is the top priority. ICP is no exception. To reach a target of zero safety and environmental events, ICP has sought out and responded to leading indicators, quickly analyzed trends, assessed the workplace, and partnered with labor to elicit feedback and seek process improvements. This proactive method of worksite analysis continuously evaluates safety systems and corrects trends that could otherwise lead to dangerous setbacks. Since 2005, ICP’s worker-owned safety culture has enabled a 50 percent reduction in recordable injuries. Twice during the seven-year contract, workers achieved 1-millionhours without a recordable injury.


The success of ICP can offer many lessons learned for DOE’s Environmental Management Program. Helping rehabilitate a long-neglected acreage of U.S. soil is the project’s primary mission—but it is not the only positive outcome.

The ICP workforce has delivered significant cost savings to U.S. taxpayers. The team is demonstrating that proven results and significant return-on-investment can be achieved through client and stakeholder partnering; through an unwavering commitment to safety and the environment; by investing in innovation, detailed planning and integration; and from a dedication to delivery excellence.

By honoring commitments to stakeholders, reducing risks to people and communities, and relieving future generations of environmental and financial liabilities, this extraordinary cleanup program is helping the Idaho National Laboratory continue a critical research and development mission that began more than 63 years ago.

Bill Badger is Marketing and Communications Manager, CH2M HILL Nuclear Business Group; 720-286-5632, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..