The Department of Energy will finish a study this fall on whether Hanford and other high-level radioactive defense wastes should be disposed of with used nuclear fuel from commercial plants, said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
He discussed the study in response to questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
Bipartisan Senate legislation has been introduced to implement the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which was formed after the Obama administration moved to end work on the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear repository.
The proposed legislation would allow the construction and operation of a facility for defense waste if Moniz determines that separating the two types of waste is best.
Technically, Hanford and commercial waste could be stored together, Moniz said at the hearing. However, there could be advantages to not combining the two types of waste, he said.
Hanford waste includes high-level radioactive waste stored in underground tanks until it can be glassified at the vitrification plant. It also includes fuel irradiated for weapons plutonium production but not processed to remove plutonium after the Cold War ended.
Cantwell is concerned that Hanford and other defense waste not be treated as "an afterthought" as plans are made for disposal of commercial used fuel.
"We need this to be a central part of the discussion, and so that's what I would be looking for in legislation," she said.
Hanford continues to make progress, she said. But a plan is needed so that waste that's retrieved from aging underground tanks, some of which are leaking, has a destination once it is treated for disposal. The plan should be updated every five years, she said.
"It's unacceptable to our state and my constituents to think that Hanford is just going to end up being that repository for that vast amount of high-level defense waste," she said.
A disposal site for high-level radioactive defense waste "is the best, most comprehensive, cost-effective way to deal" with Hanford's tank waste, she said.
Moniz said DOE is committed to moving high-level waste off Hanford.
He was impressed with environmental cleanup progress made over the last several years when he made his first visit as energy secretary last month, he said.
There will be access again to the Columbia River in two or three years as cleanup along the river is completed, he said. Work to allow the demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is well along and groundwater treatment plants are making progress.
"I thought it was actually also uplifting at least in those ways," he said.
Energy Northwest, which operates the nuclear power plant near Richland, sent comments earlier to the four senators who wrote the legislation discussed at the Tuesday hearing.
It asked that the differences in defense waste and commercial used fuel be considered because there could be interest in eventually retrieving the commercial fuel to be recycled.
Recycling now is not feasible but one day it could be a viable, affordable alternative to seeking new fuel sources, according to Energy Northwest. Reusing it could reduce the volume of waste needing to be stored.
Moniz said there also might be other types of suitable repositories besides deep geological disposal, such as was proposed at Yucca Mountain. Deep bore holes is one possibility, he said.
Adopting a lasting policy on nuclear waste is urgent, according to senators at the hearing.
"Simply continuing to pass the burden of safely disposing of nuclear waste to future generations is not an option -- whether it is at a shuttered nuclear power plant or in tanks along the Columbia River," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the committee chairman and one of four senators who collaborated on the legislation.
"Our goal with this legislation is to get the permanent repository program back on track and to make sure spent fuel and nuclear defense waste is handled safely until it is," he said.
Among the bill's provisions is creating an independent agency replacing DOE as manager of the nuclear waste program and creating temporary storage and a repository in communities and states that consent to have them.