HANFORD — The group charged with recommending policy for dealing with the nation's high-level radioactive waste got a firsthand look Wednesday at some of the waste it must find a solution for.
And then, after a four-hour tour of the 586 square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation, the members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future heard from those who must live with the waste.
The decisions they make could affect the health and livelihood of the people of the Northwest for generations to come, area residents told the commission at a Kennewick meeting attended by about 150 people.
"My people won't remember your names in a 1,000 years, but they will live with your decisions," said Stuart Harris of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
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President Obama made good on campaign statements and moved to shut down the long-studied Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository this year, derailing expectations that Hanford's high-level radioactive waste left from the production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program would be disposed of there.
Used nuclear power plant fuel, including fuel at Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station, also was expected to go to the repository.
He ordered the commission formed to make alternate recommendations, including how to choose a repository site, how to store waste in the meantime and whether the nation should consider reusing nuclear fuel as other countries do.
"Boy, oh boy, what a mess we created making those bombs," said former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a commission member, at the end of the Hanford tour. "Now we have to fix it up."
The board is headed by cochairmen Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Lee Hamilton, former Indiana congressman and member of the 9/11 Commission.
The commission stopped at one of Hanford's tank farms, where some of the site's 53 million gallons of radioactive waste are stored in underground tanks that date back to the 1940s. As workers in head-to-toe white radiation-protection suits worked on preparations to begin emptying one of the leak-prone tanks next month, the commission members asked questions about the stew of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste in the tanks.
The tanks account for 176 million curies of radioactivity.
They drove through the $12.3 billion vitrification plant being built to turn the tank waste into a stable glass form starting in 2019. The vitrified waste containing the majority of the radioactivity had been planned to go to Yucca Mountain and the plant was designed to meet Yucca Mountain criteria.
They also stepped inside the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility to see the eerie blue glow thrown off by 1,936 capsules of cesium and strontium emitting energy. The waste, with 106 million curies of radiation, was extracted from the tanks from 1967-83 to reduce heat.
That waste, too, might have gone to Yucca Mountain.
In addition, they saw used nuclear fuel storage at Hanford where Fast Flux Test Facility fuel and fuel irradiated for plutonium but never processed after the Cold War ended is being stored until the nation has a national repository for it. It includes 56 million curies of radioactivity.
With no repository ready to accept glassified waste produced at the vit plant, storage also must be built with or near the nuclear fuel storage for the treated tank waste.
The Hanford Advisory Board is concerned that Hanford "will be come a de facto high-level waste repository for the vitrified waste," said Susan Leckband, board chairman, at the meeting after the tour.
That could siphon money from environmental cleanup at the site to construct and maintain storage for decades, and over time the national will and funding to remove the waste to an off-site repository may fade, she said.
The commission should consider dividing up waste issues, said Ken Niles of the Oregon Department of Energy. There may be reason to pause disposal of used nuclear power fuel to consider whether it can be reprocessed for further use, but there is no use for the Hanford waste, he said.
Taking Yucca Mountain off the table has disrupted a nationwide "ecosystem" for dealing with nuclear waste, said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council.
If high-level waste doesn't go to Nevada, then why should New Mexico continue to be home to a national repository for plutonium-contaminated waste, why should Idaho take nuclear Navy waste and why should Hanford be considered for disposal of mixed low-level radioactive waste? he asked.
"These are just three examples of what we believe has turned into a political house of cards," he said.
"Science always seems to be topped by politics in the end," said Brooklyn Baptiste of the Nez Perce tribe. His is among the tribes that historically used Hanford and have treaty rights to fish, hunt and gather food there.
The nation must have a deep geological repository for high-level radioactive waste, Baptiste said, a point echoed by most of those who spoke Wednesday.
However, Gerald Pollet of Seattle-based Heart of America Northwest said his group was not concerned with long-term storage of vitrified high-level waste at Hanford. Other waste is of more concern, including plutonium-contaminated waste buried before national policy on its disposal changed, he said.
He drew the ire of Domenici, who told Pollet he was so busy talking about what DOE or the commission should not do that he never said what they should do, such as follow good science.
Vic Parrish, on his final day before retirement as chief executive of Energy Northwest, said the nation's greatest achievements -- whether putting a man on the moon or building a nuclear Navy -- were started with a singular vision.
"They were hard challenges we were willing to accept because they provided immeasurable benefits to society," he said.
In similar fashion, the commission must develop a program that will endure, he said.
It was a productive day, said Hamilton at a TRIDEC reception after the meeting.
The meeting resumes today at 8:30 a.m. at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, with invited government officials speaking to the commission, including Gov. Chris Gregoire.
Public comment will be heard at noon, but anyone who wants to speak must sign up from 8 to 10 a.m.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org