More public hearings are needed on a proposal that could lead to some radioactive waste being left at the bottom of Hanford’s underground tanks, say Washington state’s U.S. senators.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., made the request in a letter sent Thursday to the Department of Energy.
DOE responded in a statement Thursday that it is committed to an open, transparent process and will consider a technical review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and public comments before making a decision.
Federal energy officials are proposing that the remaining waste in the 16 tanks in the Hanford nuclear reservation’s C Tank Farm be classified as “waste incidental to reprocessing,” which would allow the tanks to be filled with concrete-like grout and permanently closed.
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The 16 tanks held 1.8 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste before the retrieval of the solids began.
DOE worked from 2003 until late 2017 to empty about 96 percent of the waste, making C Tank Farm the first group of the Hanford Site’s underground tanks to be emptied to regulatory standards.
Under the proposal, the remaining 64,000 gallons would be grouted within the tanks.
Much of the remaining waste is difficult to retrieve safely using existing technology without exposing workers to radiation or damaging the walls and floor of the tanks, which already are prone to leaking. Some of the remaining waste is clinging to the walls of the tanks.
DOE has safely and successfully closed waste storage tanks by grouting remaining waste at the Idaho National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, DOE said in a statement.
But watchdog group Hanford Challenge has objected to grouting the remaining tank waste in place at Hanford.
In 10 to 20 years there could be better technology to retrieve remaining waste if grouting the waste now does not make that impossible, said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge.
Grout has not been shown to effectively contain nuclear waste for periods of more than 100 years, according to Hanford Challenge. Water can infiltrate grout, and grout can break down quickly in the presence of caustic materials such as nuclear waste, it said.
Plutonium would reach the groundwater and then the Columbia Point at some point in the future, Carpenter said.
“Hanford is proposing shortcuts to the cleanup that will save money, but will in the end further damage the environment and impact human health and safety and further generations, Carpenter said.
DOE’s plan for waste retrieved from the tanks is to turn it into a stable glass form, with much if not all of the glassification to be done at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction.
Cantwell and Murray said they understand that the plan to reclassify the waste to allow grouting is the natural next step from DOE’s perspective.
But it “has the potential to set precedent for the 17 other tank farms at Hanford,” they said. “A decision of this magnitude should be made in an open and transparent manner with multiple avenues for public engagement.”
“We join the Washington state Department of Ecology and stakeholders groups in calling on DOE to hold additional public hearings in the Pacific Northwest to ensure the views of Washingtonians are heard,” they said.
Public meetings are an important avenue to explain the proposal and to hear comments from the states of Washington and Oregon, tribal nations and the public, the senators said.
DOE has not held any actual hearings on the proposal, which would include recording public testimony, but it has held meetings open to the public, it said.
A day-long meeting on the proposal was held in Richland on June 18, according to the senators.
DOE said it plans a similar meeting in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 16 and, it will participate in a public meeting organized by the Oregon Department of Energy the same evening in Portland.
There also have been presentations on the proposal at a Hanford Advisory Board committee and the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board, DOE said.
A DOE public comment period on the proposal, initially scheduled from June 4 to Sept. 7 has been extended to Nov. 7. Comments can be emailed to WMACDRAFTWIR@rl.gov.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will perform an independent technical review of the proposal, called the Draft Waste Incidental to Reprocessing Evaluation for Closure of C Tank Farm, and two additional public meetings will be held in the Tri-Cities during the NRC process.
The determination of whether the waste remaining in the C Tank Farm can be managed as low level radioactive waste, which would open the door for grouting, is one step in what is likely a multi-year regulatory process to close the tanks, DOE said.
Additional public comment would be required and approval from the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator.