Subcommittee on Mixed Wastes

Scope and Tasks of the Subcommittee

The Committee on Environmental Management Technologies (CEMT) Subcommittee on Mixed Wastes was formed in 1995 to review the technological work of DOE, industry, and research institutions on mixed-waste management, identify the greatest needs in this focus area, and make annual recommendations to the CEMT. The subcommittee also addresses cross-cutting areas of relevance to the focus area such as robotics, efficient separation processes, and sensor technology and monitoring.

It appears that many, if not most, radioactive wastes simultaneously contain radioactive contaminants and chemically hazardous or potentially chemitoxic substances. Both groups of components are subject to restrictions to protect population as well as the environment, although rationales or bases for criteria are not necessarily identical.

For the purposes of this report, mixed wastes are defined as wastes contaminated with either transuranic elements (TRU) or low-level radioactive materials (MLLW). Sources of such waste are past and current nuclear activities (with a present inventory of at least 180,000 cubic meters) and also decontamination, cleaning, and restoration activities, such as remediation of plumes. Such wastes have to be extracted and/or collected, temporarily stored, treated, and finally disposed. The latter steps also imply general or specific characterization. The following topics will be considered in this report:

  • availability of technologies in the frame of site treatment plans;
  • needs for improved or new technologies;
  • other drivers, such as efficiency, cost, quality of end product(s);
  • impact of stakeholders.


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--> Subcommittee on Mixed Wastes Scope and Tasks of the Subcommittee The Committee on Environmental Management Technologies (CEMT) Subcommittee on Mixed Wastes was formed in 1995 to review the technological work of DOE, industry, and research institutions on mixed-waste management, identify the greatest needs in this focus area, and make annual recommendations to the CEMT. The subcommittee also addresses cross-cutting areas of relevance to the focus area such as robotics, efficient separation processes, and sensor technology and monitoring. It appears that many, if not most, radioactive wastes simultaneously contain radioactive contaminants and chemically hazardous or potentially chemitoxic substances. Both groups of components are subject to restrictions to protect population as well as the environment, although rationales or bases for criteria are not necessarily identical. For the purposes of this report, mixed wastes are defined as wastes contaminated with either transuranic elements (TRU) or low-level radioactive materials (MLLW). Sources of such waste are past and current nuclear activities (with a present inventory of at least 180,000 cubic meters) and also decontamination, cleaning, and restoration activities, such as remediation of plumes. Such wastes have to be extracted and/or collected, temporarily stored, treated, and finally disposed. The latter steps also imply general or specific characterization. The following topics will be considered in this report: availability of technologies in the frame of site treatment plans; needs for improved or new technologies; other drivers, such as efficiency, cost, quality of end product(s); impact of stakeholders.

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--> The subcommittee will evaluate current or near-commercial technologies used or being proposed for the management of "mixed radioactive wastes"; evaluate the most promising technologies for mixed waste; consider development and implementation of technologies in the perspective of quantities, categories, location of wastes, and final disposal; suggest priorities for the development program; consider technologies in the perspective of regulatory requirements; and, where appropriate, consider non-U.S. technologies for management of mixed wastes. Overview of the DOE Mixed-Waste Focus Area The original strategic plans of the Mixed-Waste Focus Area (MWFA) are outlined in the Pre-decisional Draft Strategic Plan for Technology Development (USDOE, 1994). The stated mission of the MWFA is "to develop, demonstrate, and deliver technologies and treatment systems to treat and dispose of MLLW and MTRU in a safe, timely, and cost-effective manner" and to "be responsive to customer needs, . . . achieve compliance with regulatory requirements, and . . . achieve public acceptability." Additionally, the MWFA intends to have at least three pilot-scale demonstration systems treating actual mixed waste within three years. According to MWFA, these systems, if they are accepted for full-scale implementation, should be capable of treating 90 percent of the current MLLW inventory. The MWFA intends to accomplish its goals in seven years and then "go out of business." The more recent version of the Program Management Plan (USDOE, 1995) provides similar statements on mission and objectives. One of the major considerations stated in this plan pertains to disposal of the treated mixed waste; however, no guidance or further plans for addressing this important consideration have been issued, which appears to be a serious omission in the DOE documentation. One of the most important process considerations related to disposal of mixed waste is the long-term performance of the waste form in the disposal facility. Focusing on waste streams and needs for treatment technologies is a reasonable approach to defining and prioritizing the needs of technology development. The MWFA appears to be shifting toward this approach and should continue to do so. The focus area appears to be making progress identifying and prioritizing needs based on this waste-stream approach, and DOE's methods for prioritizing its needs for technology development based on this approach will be reviewed in the future by the Mixed-Waste Subcommittee. The customers of the MWFA are identified as the DOE-EM Offices of Waste Management (EM-30), Environmental Restoration (EM-40), and Facility Transition (EM-60). The requirements for technology development of the DOE EM-30 are by far the most clearly defined of the three customers. Additionally, the planning documents appear to be focused toward supporting site treatment plans

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--> (STPs), required by the Federal Facilities Compliance Act (FCCA), which is largely the responsibility of EM-30 and, to a degree, EM-40. This emphasis appears to be the correct initial emphasis for the MWFA, but the planning documents and subsequent work may benefit from more clearly defined customer needs. Such documents exist for the major nuclear DOE sites, but the degree of detail and specificity is far from uniform; the latter may illustrate the fact that conclusions cannot yet be drawn concerning technologies to be used and the evaluation of the actual problems. The integration of DOE-EM's programs by means of focus areas involving DOE-EM headquarters, field offices, national laboratories, and other contractors is considered worthwhile by the subcommittee. A number of issues are confronting an integrated technology-development profile, such as deadlines established in legally binding negotiations, the balance between near-term and future technology-development needs, the activities being funded, issues involved in the process required by the FFCA, and strategies to decide where treatment facilities would be located to handle each category of waste stream in consonance with site consent orders. Information from EM-30 and EM-40 on how their needs are being addressed would be worthwhile to the subcommittee. Increasing public acceptance of the technologies to be developed is a worthy goal of the MWFA and the plans under development to enhance this effort should continue. Regulatory Aspects Mixed waste presents unique regulatory issues because of separate and sometimes inconsistent regulations that deal with hazardous waste and radioactive components. Four primary laws that relate to management of radioactive constituents are monitored by the USNRC, the Agreement States, and DOE. However, eleven primary laws that regulate the hazardous constituents of mixed waste are implemented and controlled by a number of agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state and local waste-management agencies, state or local air-quality districts, local water and sanitation districts, and federal and state offices of the Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The Federal Facility Compliance Act (FFCA) of 1992 sets out a framework for mixed-waste management by DOE that directly affects the program and priorities of the Mixed-Waste Focus Area. The FFCA amended the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and defines mixed waste broadly as waste that contains both hazardous waste and sources, special nuclear, or by-product material subject to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The FFCA required DOE to prepare a report containing a national inventory of mixed waste on a state-by-state basis and a report

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--> containing a national inventory of mixed-waste treatment capacities and technologies. These reports were published by DOE in 1993 and helped set the framework for technology development for mixed-waste management. In addition to these two reports, the FFCA required DOE to devise mixed-waste plans for development of treatment capacities and technologies. These mixed-waste plans were required for each DOE facility that does not already have a state agreement. Although short planning horizons under these regulations have created a near-term impetus for selection of conventional treatment technologies, such as incineration, physical/chemical treatment, and basic separation technology, the site plans appear to provide for flexibility and do not restrict severely the application of technology that is in the development stage at this time. The status of the plan should be considered if new R&D begins on waste streams that are on schedule for treatment. The mixed-waste plans and the inventory of technologies are intended to comply with the treatment standards of the land-disposal restrictions of RCRA. EPA has promulgated treatment standards for each of the EPA hazardous waste codes, which also identify mixed waste. The standards generally define maximum levels of hazardous constituents in the treatment residue to be landfilled based on Best Demonstrated Available Technology. EPA is promulgating two new regulations that will have a large influence on the treatment and definition of mixed waste. First, the Hazardous Waste Identification Rule (HWIR) will attempt to define waste on a national basis by threshold concentrations of listed hazardous waste. This regulation, which may become effective in 1996, could remove significant quantities of DOE mixed waste from the RCRA regulatory scheme. Second, the EPA Combustion Strategy, also scheduled for promulgation in 1996, will affect greatly the permit requirements for thermal treatment processes such as incineration, plasma hearths and arcs, and vitrification. Technologies operating at lower temperatures could be easier to permit because they fall outside the incinerator requirements. However, these technologies may require permits under RCRA Subpart X, although most of them have not yet reached a sufficient state of development and demonstration. In addition, the plans for DOE facilities must be approved by states with authority to prohibit land disposal of mixed waste or the EPA administrator after public participation. The involvement of the public and local regulators complicates a difficult permitting process for treatment facilities. This permit process and public involvement are critical aspects of any environmental technology-development program. For example, the efforts of the EPA National Technical Workgroup seem to be a constructive approach. DOE should increase activities that will assist in the streamlining of the permit process. Such efforts should allow the public and regulators information, understanding, and assurance that alternative technologies have been addressed adequately. Such information would demonstrate that the most appropriate waste-treatment

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--> technology has been selected and that rigorous scientific criteria for technical effectiveness, health and safety to people and the environment, reliability, and cost are addressed during the permitting process. Criteria for Technology Development Two basic criteria for technology development have been identified by the MWFA in its 1994 Management Plan: (1) improve performance, reduce risks, and minimize life-cycle costs over existing technology; and (2) develop treatment capability for waste streams that cannot be treated with existing technology. These criteria appear to be appropriate for technology development for mixed-waste treatment; however, it should be noted that each of these criteria cannot be optimized individually and that tradeoffs will be required. Additionally, choosing the proper balance among these tradeoffs will necessitate both value and technical judgments. For example, reducing risks and minimizing life-cycle costs are sometimes conflicting criteria. Technical criteria can be established to achieve the basic criteria mentioned above. For example, by identifying the waste streams for which treatment technologies currently exist and are satisfactory, the technology-development needs can be focused on the remaining waste streams. The obvious place to start is the FFCA site-treatment plans. Some of these waste streams may be amenable to treatment by existing technology with only minor modification, while other waste streams may require more important adaptation or even new technology. A systems approach that evaluates a treatment technology with respect to volume reduction, regulatory requirements, characterization efforts, and final waste-form performance should be used to identify these technology needs. At the first level, DOE should know if technology development is to replace existing technology or if it is for a waste stream that currently has no associated treatment technology. The former assumes that a technology currently exists but has some unacceptable attributes, such as high cost, low efficiency, a narrow envelope for waste inputs, or excessive secondary waste streams. The attributes of the developing technology must clearly be better than the existing technology to warrant continued development. A careful analysis of the existing technology may shed light on opportunities for developing technology. Because a large fraction of waste-treatment cost is for characterization, treatment technologies that can accept a wide range of waste requiring only limited waste-characterization may be more desirable than technologies requiring more detailed characterization. Of course, some minimum degree of characterization will always be required, and this baseline level could be used to benchmark the additional characterization required for potential treatment technologies under consideration.

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--> The final waste form is another important consideration for evaluating technology development (e.g., because the radionuclide concentrations resulting from the volume reduction caused by some treatment processes may preclude disposal in a near-surface facility by failing certain waste acceptance criteria or by requiring a secondary stabilization treatment). Also, the long-term performance of the waste form in a disposal facility must be assessed, and short-term test procedures must be developed to provide indication of the waste form long-term performance. Other end points to development of individual technologies include the documentation requirements for safety and performance assessments for new technology systems. The determination that a sufficient number of treatment technologies is available to meet the DOE's mixed-waste treatment needs could serve as the end point of the program as a whole or of specific developments. Significant progress toward focusing and prioritizing technology development along these lines has been made. However, the MWFA should also incorporate a broader systems approach in its ongoing efforts and consider factors such as volume reduction, toxicity, risk to the environment and the operators, characteristics of the end product, cost for development and operation. This broader approach will help to ensure that all important factors are considered in the selection of developing technology. Status of Current Technologies Waste Types and Assessment/Characterization Waste composition dictates the range of technologies that can be applied to achieve the desired technical, regulatory, and social objectives. The MWFA encompasses over 100 waste types in five general classes: combustible organics; soils, debris, and solids; sludges; wastewater slurries and inorganics; and special wastes. DOE has several projects designed to inspect drums for leaks and for shipment suitability, measurements of volumes, density, and radioactivity determination that will be demonstrated in the field in the next two years. The usefulness of these techniques for controlling a waste feed to a treatment technology is uncertain and must be related to the treatment technique's sensitivity to variation in feed composition and other specific factors, such as potential criticality and direct chemical hazards. Similarly, analytical control for treatment processes, emissions monitoring, and disposal suitability of the end products are highly specific and must be addressed as part of the treatment technology. The chosen technique preferably should be automated, rugged, and reliable, and should provide as close to possible real-time analysis. An example of these needs is the flow-through alpha monitor, which

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--> detects low concentrations of alpha emitters in gas streams. This method is to be field tested in 1996. All proposed mixed-waste treatment processes emit gaseous effluents. Emissions of volatile metals; radioactive particles; and compounds such as chlorinated dioxins and furans, products of incomplete combustion or thermal cracking under pyrolysis conditions, are a major public concern and health risk. work in the real-time analysis of these pollutants should be emphasized because it can be applicable to almost all waste-treatment processes. Technology Development and Selection Historically, waste-disposal and waste-treatment practices have focused initially on methods that can treat or dispose of a large variety of wastes, such as landfills and incinerators. As special procedures became available for specific wastes, combinations of treatment began to be applied to many waste streams. At this stage, DOE has examined a number of treatment technologies that are very broad in scope. Plasma technology, vitrification, encapsulation, and others were chosen for their expected broad range of applicability to wide ranges of wastes. These technologies will be evaluated carefully but, according to present information, these technologies look promising and mature. Other technologies, such as supercritical water oxidation (SCWO), electrochemical oxidation (EO), and some others, also initially were intended to treat a wide range of wastes, but they are still developmental, and it appears that they may only be used for selected waste streams. As these technologies become more mature, they can be evaluated in a systems approach that defines waste-characterization issues, pre-treatment requirements, treatment, waste streams and waste form, and regulatory/social issues. This systems approach is being applied by DOE in its recent evaluation of thermal-treatment processes and the current study of nonthermal processes. Thinking of technology as a system designed for treatment of specific types of wastes should be DOE's future approach. Identifying waste composition and treatment systems has begun and appears to be a major effort by DOE that should continue. Thermal Treatment DOE has carried out a comprehensive examination of a range of thermal-treatment options in comparison to the existing commercial, slagging rotary kiln incinerator. In view of the risk remaining in developing technologies versus the long-term experience with the incinerators, it is not clear that economic advantages will be gained from applying these new, developing technologies.

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--> However, potential technical and social advantages may be gained from applying technology other than incineration. Plasma-technology investigators claim that the process could treat a wide range of organic and radioactive components with lower gaseous effluents than in the case of incineration. Nevertheless, considerable gas emissions may still occur (possibly with high concentrations of impurities) which would require rigorous control. In principle, the slag residue is a good waste form against ground-water leakage under repository conditions. DOE announced it will be field testing a unit on radioactive waste within two years. Long-term reliability and duty requirements have to be verified before this process can be considered suitable for commercial use in the future (about the year 2000). Among the group of technologies based on the use of a molten metal bath for waste treatment or the recovery of metals, is Quantum-CEPTM, a trademark of M4 Environmental L.P. The technology is close to commercialization, and a field demonstration using radioactive waste is proposed. The field demonstration experience should also contribute to the evaluation of the application of the technology (e.g., nature of feed materials and end products) and, possibly, needs for further development. Vitrification treats waste streams contaminated with radionuclides, metals, and organics. It has been field tested and is essentially commercial for liquid high-level wastes. Gas emissions must be controlled during the vitrification process, as in other treatments. Nonthermal Processes DOE is carrying out a systems evaluation for the following technologies: catalytic oxidation for organics in water, electrochemical oxidation of organics, electron-beam destruction of organics in water or gas, photo-oxidation of organics in water, high-energy corona discharge for organics in gas streams, and many others. These technologies have been chosen from an initial list of over 200 commonly used technologies. The selected technologies are in the bench phase of development and would appear to be at least eight years from potential commercial operation. It may be possible that these technologies will find an earlier application for specific waste streams that are suited for the attributes of the technology. A broad range of separation technologies can be applied for pre-or post-treatment of waste. Soil washing and thermal desorption are examples of commercial technologies. In the area of soil washing, increasing the efficiency of removal of pollutants from soil remains a critical issue. Indirectly heated thermal desorption is a commercial technology for removing organic pollutants and mercury from solids. This technology offers organic separation and gas effluent streams that are 2–10 percent of the air emission of incinerators. Indirect thermal desorption should be

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--> examined further in any system evaluation for wastes containing organic constituents. Demonstrations with radioactive components are being planned. Stabilization and Containment Vitrification can be used to stabilize a range of inorganic and metal wastes. The technology can be applied at different temperatures, using varying process configurations, and using different additives for the glass-making process. The technology is commercial except that more field testing on low-level radioactive wastes will be performed within the next two years. Polyethylene encapsulation is suitable for many wastes such as debris and residuals and for streams that are not amenable to vitrification. The technology has been field tested and is close to commercialization. Stability of waste and encapsulation metrix may remain a concern in certain cases. Phosphate-bonded ceramic waste stabilization will be field tested within the next two years on residues from the plasma process. Summary DOE is demonstrating a number of technologies that can be applied to the very large range of mixed wastes. This variety of technologies can contribute to the treatment of diverse waste; nevertheless, developing many variants of the same basic technology does not seem to be justified. At this stage of the development cycle, it seems more important to focus heavily on the waste streams and to examine alternative systems likely to treat the wastes of interest than to demonstrate technology. By combining a range of waste analysis methods, pre-and post-treatment separation and treatment methods, developed technologies, and analyses of the acceptability of the waste product, waste-stream groupings can be identified for which no good solution currently exists and which are therefore candidates for research. DOE has such a program planned for the coming year. Some problems may require new methods or subprocesses or new approaches. Such problems may, for example, be related to specific volatile metallic components. For these, it is important that priorities be established both for the waste to be treated and for technologies to be developed. More attention should be paid to the evaluation of the related problems and their relative priority. Much effort is being spent by DOE on developing nonthermal methods for the destruction of organic components in mixed waste. One incentive has been to avoid high temperatures which may generate problems related to off gases and off gas purification. A first impression is that these nonthermal processes are still less

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--> developed than thermal processes; nevertheless, they deserve proper attention, for example, for well-specified homogeneous waste. Potential future use of developmental thermal technologies should be evaluated in terms of risks and technical and economic aspects versus proven technologies. Most importantly, strong public involvement must be maintained to overcome potential hurdles that new technologies will face as their technical problems become more apparent with longer use. Most treatment facilities have gas emissions. Gas-emission control and real-time monitoring of pollutants of concern are an important area of research that should be continued. Issues Affecting Technology Development and Use Impact of Public Involvement/Concern Prior to 1984, the management of hazardous and mixed waste at DOE facilities was shielded from public review. After agreeing to comply with RCRA and other federal and state environmental laws at its facilities, the DOE initiated a policy of public openness. DOE established advisory committees of stakeholders to interface with facility operators on environmental issues. Similar to the increased public participation resulting from the 1984 Hazardous and Solid Waste Act Amendments and the 1996 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, the 1992 FFCA further increased public participation in DOE affairs. Also, the states made the facility site plans available to the public. These actions resulted in the public voicing concerns about conventional incineration and the transport of mixed wastes off-site for disposal. While these concerns are often emotional, it would be inappropriate to label them as only ''nontechnical'' because they are rooted in the nature of the technology and a risk of vehicular accident during transport, respectively. DOE has shown responsiveness to these concerns in its mixed-waste technology development strategy and in its mixed-waste treatment plans by focusing on alternatives to conventional incineration and by attempting to plan for the treatment of most wastes at the site where they are currently stored. In addition, DOE has selected continuous monitoring for incinerators as a means of addressing stakeholder concerns regarding toxic emissions as a priority.

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--> Political Issues Political issues continue to play a role in DOE waste-management technology decisions. Political pressures within states for rapid reform of DOE waste-management programs may have resulted in technology choices in previous state agreements that are in need of review. Furthermore, the large amounts of money required for cleanup and waste management at DOE facilities and the finite DOE budget could create political competition among host states for large projects that may or may not be part of the DOE mixed-waste strategies. Finally, the ultimate political issue becomes the viability of DOE's technology-development plans in the face of major budget cuts proposed by Congress. Constraints on the DOE-EM budget likely will continue for the next several years, placing an emphasis on low cost or highly effective treatment technology and shorter-term returns. DOE should develop a prioritization plan that presents a clear basis for funding technology development during times of severe budget constraints. Regulatory Reform The proposed Hazardous Waste Identification Rule (HWIR) planned to be published for public comment in the coming months may have an important impact on the need for treatment capacity for mixed wastes and associated technological development. Because the HWIR is expected to propose concentration thresholds for RCRA listed wastes below which these wastes are no longer considered hazardous, this rulemaking may cause large quantities of mixed waste to be reclassified as strictly radioactive waste and may negate the need for some treatment. The MWFA should closely monitor this rulemaking to understand the impact it may have on DOE's technology development. Cost/Benefit The MWFA has determined that 90 percent of the mixed-waste streams can be treated with technologies that currently exist or that can be modified. Therefore, the majority of technology development will likely be focused toward improving these present technologies. Standard measures for evaluating and comparing alternatives should be used, including cost-benefit analysis. Because the MWFA is interested in reducing the overall life-cycle costs, the cost-benefit analysis should entail a broad view of the complete system, including waste-characterization efforts and final waste form for disposal. Decision metrics should be clearly articulated, and flexibility should be built into the decision process to revise the metrics if better metrics are found.

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--> However, decisions pertaining to selection of innovative technologies based solely on cost-benefit analysis should be avoided. In particular, funding basic research with the potential to deliver technologies having large but undefined financial pay-offs in the future shold be supported. The benefits of basic research are often hard to quantify, and holding this research to strict equations of cost and benefit may cause DOE to forego some promising research. Privatization Many of the site treatment plans (STP) specify treatment of a large percentage of waste streams in private treatment facilities. The basis for this trend is unclear. The issue of privatization was discussed by the subcommittee with no resolution. Some issues requiring resolution include (1) the degree of latitude to the bidders in specifying and designing technology systems and (2) the proper level within the system at which to privatize (i.e., individual components, treatment units, or entire treatment trains). Conclusions and Recommendations Conclusion: Among the criteria for the selection of treatment technologies, the physical and chemical characteristics and volume of the end products—or the need for secondary immobilization—are integral and important issues in waste management. These criteria also mean that the option for a type of disposal environment (not necessarily the disposal site) and current or expected regulatory restrictions related to disposal are of great significance. Recommendation: DOE-EM should give full consideration to the characteristics of the final waste form from the perspective of its potential disposal environment. Conclusion: Selection of treatment technology and decisions for development of new technologies should be based primarily on perceived needs associated with specific waste streams. For "near-mature" technologies, the potential advantages and types of wastes treated need further evaluation. Application of available and near-mature technologies may still leave some waste-treatment problems unsolved and, for the latter, new approaches may be required.

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--> Recommendation: DOE should establish R&D priorities on the basis of quantities of wastes, associated risks, available technologies, and regulatory constraints. Ultimately, treatment technologies must be evaluated as a total system, including disposal, and in life-cycle context. Conclusion: For several categories of wastes, mainly those containing organic components, nonthermal destruction processes may look attractive when compared with established thermal technologies. However, the majority of the nonthermal processes are still in an early stage of development and/or demonstration. Recommendation: In the comparison of thermal and nonthermal treatment methods and establishment of relative priorities, the stage of development, end-product characteristics, technical and economic advantages, and potential for improvements of thermal processes should be considered. Conclusion: Adequate characterization, adapted to the requirements of specific treatment technologies and the properties of handled materials, is a critical element for successful and cost-effective implementation of mixed-waste management. Recommendation: Characterization techniques should be adapted and limited to meet the essential requirements of the treatment processes and waste-management systems. Conclusion: The permit process and public involvement are critical aspects of any environmental technology-development program. Recommendation: DOE should increase activities that assist in streamlining the permit process and stakeholder involvement.

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--> References U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE). 1994. Pre-decisional Draft Strategic Plan for Technology Development . U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE). 1995. Program Management Plan for the DOE-EM Mixed Waste Focus Area Program, Draft F, pp 3-4, b-4.