Nuclear waste in Oregon should be stored at Hanford, former DOE Hanford manager says

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldAugust 23, 2013 

The Tri-City area should volunteer to take the used nuclear fuel from Oregon's closed Trojan reactor and store it at Hanford until the nation has a permanent repository, said Mike Lawrence, the former top Department of Energy Hanford manager.

He spoke about Hanford at the Columbia Basin Badger Club meeting Friday, saying that Hanford tank leaks are not of immediate concern but that concerns about the vitrification plant's safe and efficient operation are reasonable.

Lawrence was the DOE Hanford manager from 1984-90 and signed the Tri-Party Agreement, which has regulated Hanford cleanup, in 1989.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future has proposed that used commercial nuclear fuel be stored until 2048 in states that volunteer to house it until a nation- al repository is available for the fuel and also high-level radioactive defense waste from Hanford and other DOE sites. Communities could receive some economic reward for volunteering.

Hanford already is a temporary storage site by default because no national repository likely will be available in the coming decades for waste that was planned to be sent to the Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository, where work is no longer under way.

But it's unlikely that the community will see any economic benefit for that, Lawrence said.

If the community agreed to take the 34 canisters of used fuel stored in Rainier, Ore., across the Columbia River from Washington, it would be a minuscule addition to what already is at Hanford, Lawrence said. It could be shipped up the Columbia River, just as the Trojan reactor vessel was before it was stored at the trench used to hold Navy reactor compartments at Hanford, he said.

Hanford has a projected 9,700 canisters of glassified waste from the vitrification plant and 2,347 tons of irradiated Hanford fuel, never processed to remove weapons plutonium, that are planned to be shipped to a national repository when one is available.

By taking the Trojan fuel, "it shows we are willing to be part of the solution," Lawrence said. The area also could be rewarded with economic benefits or projects that would create jobs, he said.

On Hanford environmental cleanup, Lawrence said work should proceed with deliberate speed for environmental and ethical reasons.

But the five underground tanks suspected to be leaking are not a crisis, he said. In the past, 67 of Hanford's tanks are suspected of leaking an estimated 1 million gallons of radioactive waste into the ground, but that was believed to have been stopped when pumpable liquids were removed.

However, in February, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was told by then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu that the five tanks, including two not known to have leaked previously, appeared to be losing waste. The waste is left from the World War II and Cold War production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Two of the tanks may be losing waste at the rate of 300 gallons a year.

The leaks are equivalent to a kitchen faucet dripping once every eight seconds for a year, Lawrence said. That's inconsequential compared to the billions of gallons of contaminated liquid released into the ground at Hanford in the past, he said.

He combed DOE reports until he found figures showing that if nothing were done to address tank waste, radioactive technetium 99 would reach its maximum concentration near the shores of the Columbia River in the year 2999 and radioactive iodine 129 would reach its maximum concentration in the year 4840. Other isotopes would be more likely to cling to the soil rather than moving into the groundwater toward the river.

The vitrification plant and making sure that it operates as it should when it is finished are more of a concern to him, he said.

Other expensive nuclear projects have failed to work, he said. That includes a fuel reprocessing plant built in Illinois in the 1970s based on technology that worked when tested on a small scale but not when the full-scale plant was completed.

That's not to say he expects the vitrification plant to fail, he said.

However, Chu was right to begin taking a close look at the vitrification plant, but that was almost a year ago, he said.

"The concern about the vitrification plant operability was reasonable, but make a decision and get on with it," Lawrence said.

He also recommended that officials in Washington, D.C., ease their tight control over communication at Hanford. Media questions often are referred to public information specialists there rather than being answered immediately by people at Hanford with first-hand and in-depth knowledge.

"I'd like to see D.C. open up so people like you get real answers," he told the Badger Club.

The Hanford contractors also need to be talking about the technical aspects of cleanup on which they are the experts, he said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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