The United States has an opportunity to start disposing of defense nuclear waste, including Hanford waste, sooner and at less cost by abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach, a federal energy official said Monday night.
Mary Louise Wagner, senior adviser to the energy secretary, said much has changed since the 1985 decision to dispose of used commercial fuel and defense waste together. The production of new defense waste ended with the Cold War and the plan to dispose of it had been controversial, costly and marked by delays.
But the Department of Energy’s latest proposal to move forward with the separate disposal of high-level radioactive nuclear defense waste from defense programs and used commercial nuclear fuel was met with skepticism by other panelists gathered by the Bipartisan Policy Center for a regional workshop in Richland. About 35 people attended the session.
The Washington, D.C., think tank held the meeting as part of its initiative to expand the national and regional conversation on nuclear waste and develop policy options that ultimately could lead to a workable nuclear waste strategy.
Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste had been planned to be shipped to Yucca Mountain, Nev., for disposal with commercial fuel from across the nation, but the Obama administration moved to shut that project down.
A simplified design could be used and disposal might start sooner if a waste repository accepted only defense waste vitrified — glassified for disposal — at Hanford or Savannah River, S.C., Wagner said. The 1,936 capsules of cesium and strontium stored underwater in central Hanford could be disposed of down a deep borehole drilled with commercial technology.
Sites for permanent disposal, along with temporary storage, would be located in areas where there is broad support for them under the DOE plan. DOE calls it “consent-based” siting.
DOE officials now are starting to look at what the steps should be to implement the new plan, Wagner said.
Deep borehole disposal may sound promising. But Oregon has learned that if it seems like DOE has a cheaper, faster, better way to fix a problem, it won’t happen, said Ken Niles of the Oregon Department of Energy.
It’s a lesson that those watching Hanford have learned, but DOE officials in Washington, D.C., have not, he said. DOE needs to make sure boreholes really would be a better and faster option before proceeding.
The state of Washington believes it is fine to explore other disposal options, but the federal government must also move forward with the Yucca Mountain repository and judge it on its merits as the law requires, said Andy Fitz, assistant attorney general for the state.
He also recommends more state control if siting is based on consent, including state regulatory authority.
State law has required a vote of the people since 1986 if Hanford is nominated to become either a permanent repository or temporary storage facility, said Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest. A statewide ballot initiative was passed when Hanford was being considered as one of three sites for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste repository before Yucca Mountain was named by Congress.
Pollet is concerned that Hanford could be named a temporary storage site, which would bring more waste into the state, he said. Hanford has nothing to gain, with its high-level waste decades away from being ready for disposal.
He called the proposal to spend billions of dollars on permanent and temporary repositories a charade to hide lack of progress on emptying Hanford’s leak-prone underground waste tanks and no money available to move cesium and strontium capsules out of a water-filled basin that would be at risk in a serious earthquake.
Representatives of tribes based in Idaho, California and Washington said there is a lack of trust between DOE and tribes that makes them leery of consent-based siting. Better government to government consultation is needed, they said.
If the Idaho National Laboratory nuclear reservation is proposed as a repository site, waste would be transported through Shoshone Bannock land, said Willie Preacher of the tribe.
“What happens if the state wants it and the tribes say no?” he asked. “How do you decide what is consent-based and how do the tribes fit in?”
Getting a tribe to give consent to something that would be devastating to the environment will be difficult, said George Gholson of the Timbisha Shoshone, of Death Valley, Calif., which is close to Yucca Mountain, Nev.
“The tribes are not moving. These are (their) homelands,” said Jean Vanni, representing the Yakama Nation.
The panels did not include any representatives of Tri-City or Mid-Columbia interests, but Tim Frazier of the Bipartisan Policy Center said some representatives of local groups had been included in other talks with the center Monday.