Governor, DOE want to send some tank waste to New Mexico

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 7, 2013 

A proposal to send some of Hanford's tank waste to the nation's repository for transuranic waste is a first step to address aging, underground tanks that are leaking radioactive waste into the ground, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.

He spent the day touring Hanford to learn more about plans for six underground tanks discovered to be leaking radioactive and hazardous chemical tanks in the past two weeks. Although 67 of Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks are suspected of leaking in the past, DOE had believed that emptying the last of the pumpable liquids from them in 2004 had stopped the problem.

DOE announced Wednesday morning that it would like to send 3.1 million gallons of the 56 million gallons of tank waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico for disposal.

That would be done without sending the waste to the Hanford vitrification plant, which is required to start treating waste for disposal in 2019, giving DOE more flexibility to deal with waste held in leak-prone single-shell tanks.

However, preparing to send the first shipment of tank waste to New Mexico could take two to four years, the governor said.

"There are a lot of hurdles between here and New Mexico," said Tom Fletcher, the Department of Energy assistant manager of the Hanford tank farms.

DOE needs to show that the waste in the tanks could be classified as transuranic waste -- typically waste contaminated with plutonium -- rather than high-level radioactive waste. It must convince the state of New Mexico to modify the permit for WIPP to accept the waste, and it must come up with a system to retrieve the waste from the tanks and prepare it for shipment.

WIPP already has accepted 649 shipments of transuranic waste from Hanford, which typically has been drums of debris contaminated with plutonium.

But in 2004, New Mexico specifically barred tank waste from Hanford from being sent to WIPP unless DOE proves the material never has been "high-level" waste.

High-level waste is planned to be sent to a deep geologic repository, such as the one that had been planned at Yucca Mountain, after it is turned into a stable glass form by vitrification.

"It is very important the people of New Mexico understand this is not Yucca Mountain moved to New Mexico," Inslee said.

DOE's preference is to send waste from 20 tanks to New Mexico. But initially it would send waste from just 11 tanks there.

The waste in the other nine tanks is so highly radioactive that it is considered "remote handled," and a facility would need to be built to allow workers to safely handle it with equipment operated at a distance. That could prove so costly that it would be less expensive to send the waste to the vitrification plant for treatment.

The state of Washington has agreed that waste in at least eight of the 11 tanks likely could be considered transuranic, because the waste comes from a final step of turning plutonium into "buttons" to be shipped off Hanford for weapons use.

Any waste that came from the initial step of chemically reprocessing irradiated fuel to remove plutonium is considered high-level radioactive waste.

Five of the six newly identified leaking tanks are among the 11 being considered by DOE for designation as transuranic waste tanks.

But sending waste from other tanks to WIPP also could help free up limited space for storing waste.

DOE has emptied 10 of 149 single shell tanks to regulatory standards at a rate of about one a year over the past decade. The waste is transferred to newer double-shell tanks, which are almost full, until the waste can be treated at the vitrification plant.

However, DOE has said it may not be able to start treating waste at the vitrification plant as required in 2019 because of technical issues with the plant that need to be resolved.

Waste from as many as 11 of the tanks that could be classified as transuranic waste would be dried and possibly combined with grout before being sent to New Mexico. That could be done with portable systems at the tanks or by sending the waste to a commercial facility, such as Perma-Fix Northwest near Hanford.

From 7,500 to 40,000 drums of transuranic tank waste might be sent to New Mexico, depending on the treatment method selected, Fletcher said.

"Removal to New Mexico unfortunately cannot be done overnight," Inslee said.

There will be continued leaking from the tanks, he said. However, the leaked waste is moving slowly. If it reaches the groundwater, that can be addressed by a new central Hanford plant now treating groundwater contaminated from past leaks, spills and disposal of liquids into the soil, the governor said.

Unfortunately, forced federal budget cuts, called sequestration, will slow work at Hanford to empty leak-prone single-shell tanks, Inslee said.

"It also will make it more expensive for taxpayers in the long run," he said.

Washington River Protection Solutions, DOE's contractor at the tank farms, must reduce its spending by $40 million, or 18 percent, through Oct. 1. It plans to require employees to take up to five weeks of time off and to lay off 125 union employees.

DOE has agreed to more monitoring of the waste in its single-shell tanks, as requested by the state of Washington, Inslee said. That will give the state increased confidence in data, he said.

DOE continues to study waste levels in 14 more single-shell tanks, where some discrepancies have been observed, Fletcher said. However, changes in their waste levels may be cause by evaporation or material settling, he said.

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

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