Obama's panel on nuclear waste to visit Hanford

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerMay 27, 2010 

The Blue Ribbon Commission making recommendations on what to do with the nation's high-level radioactive waste will visit Hanford and the Tri-Cities July 14-15.

"The commission chose Richland because traveling to the Hanford reservation provides a unique opportunity for the commission to hear first hand how diverse state and local constituencies are impacted directly by hosting a large nuclear facility," said John Kotek, the commission staff director.

President Obama ordered the commission formed as his administration moved to terminate the Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository, and the commission has been told not to consider the Nevada site.

Hanford's spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste treated at the vitrification plant were expected to be sent to Yucca Mountain.

The panel emphasized ed in its announcement that it is not a siting commission, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., echoed that.

"This will not be an audition for making Hanford a permanent repository for nuclear waste," she said in a statement.

However, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is skeptical.

"I take this visit for what it is -- a political endeavor," he said in a statement. "The Blue Ribbon Commission was formed so that President Obama could terminate Yucca Mountain without having to answer the question of what next."

The panel believes that communities like the Tri-Cities have such a large stake in solving the nation's waste problem that they should be consulted as the commission conducts its work, Kotek said.

The visit to Hanford also will allow the commission a look at the treatment, packaging and storage of used fuel and high-level radioactive waste, he said.

"It will be an opportunity for the commission to see first hand the pressing need to move waste off-site as workers continue to clean up and shrink the footprint of the site," Murray said.

While she does not believe the commission is looking at specific repository site, she is disappointed that Yucca Mountain has been dismissed from discussion and will fight any attempt to make Hanford the site of a permanent repository, she said.

"The federal government has a legal obligation to provide a permanent repository and to remove the waste from Hanford," she said.

Although the commission says its intent is not to select a site, Yucca Mountain has been arbitrarily removed from consideration, Hastings aid.

"Consequently we are left to assume that everything else is on the table," he said.

He's been asking the Department of Energy for months about the Blue Ribbon Commission, but not getting answers, he said. He wants to know if Hanford could be considered as a repository since the commission is looking at different geological mediums that exist in only a few places in the country, he said.

He also wants to know what the administration's actions mean for the Hanford vitrification plant, which will turn high-level radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. It's being built to produce glass to the specifications set for Yucca Mountain.

The Tri-City Development Council has questions about DOE's decision to halt work at Yucca Mountain "and the resultant risk to our community of becoming de facto the nation's long term waste repository," said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs. He's also among a group of Tri-City business leaders who have sued the federal government over the issue in action unrelated to TRIDEC.

TRIDEC fears that without a national repository, the waste will remain stored long term at Hanford.

A decision to identify a new repository location for the nation will take decades to make and will run a similar risk of future administrations again deciding to halt the work, Petersen said.

The Hanford Communities -- a coalition of Hanford-area local governments -- sees the visit as a positive sign, said Ed Revell, chairman of the Hanford Communities board.

"It is essential that the commission and DOE fully involve local government officials in making their decisions on the future disposition of high level nuclear waste," he said. The coalition is expecting a collaborative process, not just another public involvement process, he said.

The Hanford Communities has serious concerns that temporary storage of high-level radioactive waste at Hanford may become permanent and about what that will do for the area's reputation as it works to diversify its economy.

Hanford produced much of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. A massive environmental cleanup effort is under way, and large quantities of low-level radioactive waste from plutonium production at Hanford are being permanently buried in a central Hanford landfill. Low activity radioactive waste also will be buried at Hanford after treatment at the vitrification plant.

In other Yucca Mountain developments, Hastings and Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., have submitted an amendment to the 2011 Defense Authorization bill that would require work on Yucca Mountain to move forward.

"Decades were spent studying potential locations for a national repository and Yucca Mountain was determined to be the best solution," Hastings testified before the House Rules Committee.

Congress designated Yucca Mountain the national repository, but DOE has moved to terminate the project with no clear reason or scientific justification, he said.

"This amendment simply directs the Department of Energy to carry out its obligation under the law to provide for the permanent disposition of high-level defense nuclear waste," he said.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com.

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