Ep 24: Tara O'Niel - Environmental Assessment, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
How did your background in archaeology lead to your work in the nuclear industry?
Tara O’Neil grew up in Eugene, Oregon and fell in love with archaeology when sitting in on an archaeology field school in middle school. O’Neil thought often about participating in the dig, but didn’t realize it was an actual career. She attended Oregon State University, first studing fashion merchandising, and then, after taking an anthropology course, switched fields to earn an archaeology degree. Within a week of graduation, O’Neil hired on with PNNL and started working at Hanford Cultural Resources Lab managing cultural resources. Tara O’Neil manages historic and prehistoric sites for PNNL, including sites of Native American tribes, such as the Wanapum, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakima tribes. O’Neil completes surveys and evaluates potential impacts to sites. Over her 26 years at lab, O’Neil has been exposed to a variety of projects and experts and evolved into work with ecological risk and human health assessment. Lots of Tara O’Neil’s work is involved with site clean out, especially Hanford site related. She works with ecological scientists and has traveled to many site locations including the Mojave Desert, Alaska, and Italy. Tara O’Neil is also involved in broader environmental management, policy, and regulations at PNNL. She has completed graduate courses at Washington State University Tri-Cities to become an expert in National Environmental Policy. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to take into account impacts on environment for projects, including applicants for federal permits. Some states have laws requiring private companies to comply. Large scale projects require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) requiring the agency to establish a baseline and collect public comments during the scoping period, and identify potential issues and how it could impact the environment. Different sites have different review experts, such as archaeologists, hydrologists (surface and groundwater), geologists (terrestrial and aquatic), health physicists, and/or meteorologists.
What other work have you engaged in on the regulatory front?
Tara O’Neil has developed the infrastructure around environmental assessment, building the team and supporting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) environmental space. One decade ago, on the brink of the nuclear renaissance, the group developed infrastructure to support 18 environmental assessments at one time. The team produced environmental impact statements for the NRC, which is followed by mandatory hearings with the commission to determine whether a new reactor can be granted a new permit to construct.
What is NRC looking out for in regards to environmental impact?
Tara O’Neil and her team at PNNL determine if reactors are operating safely and protecting human health and environment. There is a pre-application space to understand potential impacts and identify mitigation measures. Some sites gain early site permits, allowing them to go through an environmental and safety process to bank a site and resolve issues up front. Different licenses to construct and operate can be applied for.
What happened with the nuclear renaissance?
What are some of the mitigation efforts that might have to take place at a nuclear site?
Tara O’Neil saw the drop in natural gas prices combined with the Fukushima incident have an effect on the possibility of a nuclear renaissance. Advanced reactors and SMR’s are in lots of conversations and design certifications are being pursued. An environmental review for early-site permit for Clinch River, near Oak Ridge, is currently being pursued. In the realm of cultural resources, O’Neil decides if there is the ability to move a build or not. If not, the team goes through a series of documentation to try to retain as much information as possible, and if it is possible, what it will take to move historic structures. Tara O’Neil typically sees the environmental review process taking anywhere from 2-3 years to 8-10 years, dependent on many factors. A new push with current administration to streamline infrastructure related projects has left federal agencies to look at a two year timeframe for review. The environmental review must be completed on time without compromising anything.
What are some environmental considerations for the existing nuclear reactors?
Tara O’Neil sees most environmental considerations for existing nuclear reactors revolving around license extensions and decommissioning. There are approximately 99 operating reactors in US which were originally constructed with licenses good for 40 years. Toward the end of their life cycle, the NRC must make a business decision about whether to pursue a license extension or decommission. As part of the license renewal process, the NRC will go through similar safety and environmental reviews to make an extension for 20 years. NRC recently accepted the first subsequent license renewal, meaning a site went through one round of license renewals, reached the end of the 20 year extension, and asked for another extension, to extend the license from 60 to 80 years. Both safety and environmental have aging management for existing reactors. After 50 years, they are eligible for listing on the National Register as historic sites.
Environmental Review System
What are some things you like about the environmental review system and
what are some areas for improvement?
Tara O’Neil likes the fact-based structure of the environmental review process and how all disciplines are connected to understand issues to better assess impacts. As for lessons learned, O’Neil is embracing the streamlined approach for reviews, and acknowledges that it is difficult, but overall a good thing for the industry. She is interested in the future use of small modular reactors (SMR’s) at DoD sites and believes a lots could be learned from their deployment.