Hanford and other nuclear weapons waste should be considered separately as the nation wrestles with the issue of waste disposal, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Tuesday.
She spoke at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to consider the proposed Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012, which includes many of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future.
The commission was formed to look at new options for used commercial nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste from Hanford and other defense sites after the Obama administration moved to stop work on the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository.
Cantwell would need to see a specific disposal plan for Hanford's waste separate from plans for commercial waste before supporting any new legislation to address the nation's nuclear waste problem, she said.
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Hanford officials had planned to send some unprocessed irradiated nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste that is glassified at the Hanford vitrification to Yucca Mountain. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear waste program.
The defense waste is different from the used commercial nuclear fuel and should not be drawn into that debate "when this could be separated out, dealt with and moved forward," she said.
The Hanford tank waste that will be vitrified is a "witch's brew of materials" that cannot be reprocessed and reused as has been proposed for the used commercial nuclear fuel, she said.
Because Hanford's vitrified waste will not be reprocessed, retrieval of the waste from a repository does not appear to be an issue, she said.
The wastes are different, said Richard Meserve, who spoke at the hearing as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission. The commission's report urged that the waste be considered separately, and the policy, which was established by the Reagan administration to have a single repository for both, be re-examined, he said.
Considering defense waste separately could speed up the removal of high level radioactive waste from Hanford, Cantwell said. If the vitrification plant starts on schedule, which may not happen, high level waste could be ready for disposal starting in 2019.
"(Hanford) is the largest cleanup site, probably in the entire world," she said. "And so getting it done and getting it tackled in the most efficient way and the most cost-effective way means not getting it tangled up in this larger debate."
The Tri-Cities has had the burden of radioactive defense waste for 70 years, she said.
"Now we would like to move on to the next chapter of economic development," she said.
She's interested in considering salt formations, such as those at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, for high level radioactive waste. Now the New Mexico repository accepts waste contaminated with plutonium and other transuranic isotopes from Hanford and other DOE sites, which is not considered high-level radioactive waste.
A recent report by James Conca and Judith Wright of the Tri-Cities put the cost of using salt formations for disposal at less than half that of using crystalline rock or volcanic tuff, according to Cantwell's staff. However, the nation's nuclear waste policy effectively excludes using salt formations for disposal of high-level radioactive waste because any deposits would be permanent and could not be retrieved.
The immediate issue at Hanford is stabilizing high-level radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, some of which have leaked in the past, Meserve said in response to questioning by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. But once the waste is stabilized there are ways to store it safely, he said.
"Storage on the banks of the Columbia River is not seen as a permanent solution in my part of the world," Wyden said, before giving the floor to Cantwell.
"It's unacceptable for this waste to be stored at Hanford," she said.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com