Hanford

When it comes to Hanford’s toxic pollution, a fence just isn’t enough, Oregon group says

Columbia Riverkeeper says the Department of Energy should consider how people may use the Hanford nuclear reservation long into the future as it makes decisions today about removing radioactive soil or cleaning up polluted groundwater that flows toward the Columbia River.
Columbia Riverkeeper says the Department of Energy should consider how people may use the Hanford nuclear reservation long into the future as it makes decisions today about removing radioactive soil or cleaning up polluted groundwater that flows toward the Columbia River. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Department of Energy is not being realistic about how Hanford may be used in the future as it makes decisions on cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation, says Oregon-based Columbia Riverkeeper.

“(The department’s) vision for Hanford leaves dangerous waste in place for thousands of years, preventing people from fully using the land, river and groundwater at Hanford,” said a new report by the organization dedicated to protecting Columbia River water quality.

“(DOE’s) approach rests on a short-sighted analysis of how people may use Hanford in the future, and it fails to anticipate how people will come into contact with Hanford’s pollution in hundreds or thousands of years.”

Columbia Riverkeeper on Tuesday released, “Competing Visions for the Future of Hanford,” a project that began as an effort to take a step back and look at how visions for final cleanup of Hanford conflict.

The 580-square-mile site in Eastern Washington has areas that are massively contaminated by radioactive and hazardous chemical materials from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Columbia Riverkeeper is recommending that Hanford’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan be reopened and amended to address concerns raised by tribes and others.

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The Department of Energy is considering how to close tanks at Hanford that have been emptied of radioactive waste to regulatory standards. Tri-City Herald File

The report became even more timely, said Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper conservation director, as DOE began talking this spring about closing underground tanks.

The government is proposing that 530,000-gallon tanks that have been mostly, but not completely, emptied of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste be filled with concrete-like grout and left in the ground.

Not only would some of the waste remain on the bottom of the tanks or clinging to its walls, but the plan would interfere with cleanup of contaminated soil beneath the tanks from waste leaks or spills, the report pointed out.

In places, DOE plans engineered caps that will prevent precipitation from driving waste deeper into the ground.

It also will rely on “institutional controls” such as fences, signs and land deed restrictions to prevent activities such as digging into contaminated areas and drilling wells where groundwater may remain contaminated.

“The report shows how, time and again, Energy defaults to building fences, signs and concrete caps instead of cleaning up dangerous pollution,” Serres said.

DOE has a land use plan that is periodically updated that designates a limited amount of land to be cleaned up only to industrial standards and much of it to be cleaned up to conservation and preservation standards.

“By narrowing potential future uses, (DOE) uses the land use plan to justify leaving pollution in Hanford’s soil and groundwater,” the report said.

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Members of the Yakama Nation Fisheries use a seine to capture juvenile salmon from the Columbia River on the Hanford Reach as part of a tagging study. Tri-City Herald File

Northwest tribes that used Hanford land until the federal government took it over during World War II for production of plutonium have treaty rights to continue to use the land.

A cleanup that is suitable for recreational use by people who only visit the area does not meet tribal needs, the report said.

Tribes would like to again use Hanford for hunting, fishing, gathering and sweat lodges, bringing them into close contact with soils, water, air, plants, wildlife and fish, the report said.

Not only the tribes, but also the states of Oregon and Washington state, dispute DOE’s assumptions about how Hanford will be used in the future, the report said.

Both states have a strong preference for removing as much waste as possible from Hanford, the report said.

In response, DOE said in a statement Tuesday that it recognizes the tribes and others’ interest in cleanup and future use at Hanford, and it considers their input valuable.

DOE and regulator “decisions take into account future uses of the site and other legitimate factors such as cost and feasibility,” DOE said. “Our primary goal remains protecting the safety and health of the public and preserving the many natural and cultural resources on the Hanford Site.”

The group said cleanup plans should comply with treaties and tribal access to Hanford sites not undergoing cleanup should be expanded.

“Energy should invest in active cleanup rather than reliance on long-lived institutional controls that impinge on tribes’ and the general public’s potential future use of Hanford,” the report said.

It could be more cost-effective and realistic that relying on the federal government to restrict access and use of large areas of Hanford for hundreds or even thousands of years, it said.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews
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