Waste from leaking single-shell tank at Hanford could be sent to New Mexico

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 22, 2013 

Radioactive waste from the newly discovered leaking tank at Hanford could be shipped to New Mexico by the Department of Energy, rather than treated at the vitrification plant.

That's one solution for Tank T-111 that may be discussed today when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee meets with Energy Secretary Steven Chu in Washington, D.C.

After touring Hanford on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said one possibility DOE mentioned is to send waste from some tanks, including T-111, to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in the Chihuahuan Desert outside Carlsbad, N.M. It is a national repository for "transuranic" waste -- waste contaminated with plutonium.

DOE is considering a range of options to retrieve waste from underground tanks, treat it and package it so it could be designated transuranic waste for WIPP disposal, DOE said in a statement after the Herald requested more information.

In 2003, DOE proposed sending waste from eight Hanford tanks to WIPP instead of processing it at the vitrification plant, saying that would save taxpayers $500 million.

However, in 2004, New Mexico barred tank waste from Hanford, Idaho and South Carolina nuclear sites unless DOE proves the material never has been "high-level" waste.

"This is about so much more than a fight over labels on drums," said Bill Richardson, then New Mexico's governor, as he directed his staff to address the issue of tank waste in 2003. "It is about promises that were made to the people of New Mexico when WIPP opened, and making sure those promises are kept."

High-level waste is required to be sent to a deep geological repository. Officials originally planned to send the vitrification plant's high-level waste to the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, but the federal government shut down the Yucca Mountain project in 2010.

The current New Mexico governor and Environmental Department secretary may be open to considering a WIPP permit modification to allow some Hanford tank waste to be sent to their state, said Jim Conca, the director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences on the campus of Columbia Basin College.

Conca follows WIPP issues closely. He is the former director of the New Mexico State University Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, the independent monitoring program for WIPP.

In addition, Wyden has replaced retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D.-N.M., as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden may be more likely than Bingaman to consider sending some tank waste to WIPP, Conca said.

The proposal also could be welcomed by those living near WIPP, since it could extend the years WIPP accepts waste by possibly five years, keeping people employed longer, Conca said.

Herald requests for comment from New Mexico state officials went unanswered Wednesday and Thursday.

The Washington State Department of Ecology believes a case can be made for considering waste in some Hanford tanks as "transuranic," making that waste possibly eligible for shipment to New Mexico.

The state would need to know much more about the history of T-111 and what New Mexico and the Environmental Protection Agency have to say before considering its waste as transuranic, said Suzanne Dahl of the Department of Ecology. The level of waste in Tank T-111, which holds 447,000 gallons, is dropping at a rate of up to 300 gallons a year, likely due to leakage.

In 2003, the Department of Energy had been considering mobile plants that would process tank waste on a semi-trailer to remove water from the sludge. The substance that was left would have been packed and shipped to New Mexico.

However, more recently, sending waste from certain tanks to a commercial plant offsite to be solidified before shipment to New Mexico has been considered, Dahl said.

One advantage to sending some of the tank waste to WIPP would be that it would not have to be stored in Hanford's double-shell tanks, freeing up limited space. Single-shell tanks, which are prone to leaks, are being emptied into newer double-shell tanks until the waste can be sent to the vitrification plant. The plant is required to be operating in 2019.

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