$40 billion in savings or more risk left at Hanford? Feds rethink radioactive waste

A change in what is considered high level radioactive waste could allow some waste to leave the Hanford nuclear reservation sooner, say supporters of the proposal.

But it could also make it more likely that more waste could be left in the ground at Hanford indefinitely, according to critics of the proposal.

The Department of Energy is considering a change to how it interprets the legal definition of high level radioactive waste that would allow more flexibility in how it disposes of some of Hanford’s waste.

The Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments, supports the proposal.

“It is estimated that nationally this interpretation could save the Department of Energy as much as $40 billion,” said Richland Mayor Bob Thompson.

Hanford Communities has long looked forward to the announcement of the proposal, said Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities.

The group is part of the Energy Communities Alliance, a nationwide coalition of local governments near DOE sites, that released a report in September 2017, calling for a clarification to the definition of high level waste.

That and related changes could save DOE $40 billion on its remaining environmental cleanup costs across the nation of $257 billion, the report said.

But Tom Carpenter, executive director of Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, said, “The Tri-Cities should be very, very worried.”

He sees the change giving DOE too much discretion with too little independent oversight on what happens to Hanford waste.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., called for DOE to hold public hearings on the proposal.

Congress has passed laws that define high level radioactive waste as waste that results from processing irradiated nuclear fuel if the waste is “highly radioactive.”

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The Hanford nuclear reservation has 56 million gallons of high level radioactive waste held in underground tanks. Tri-City Herald File

At Hanford, chemicals were used to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel at huge processing plants. The plutonium was produced from World War II through the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The fuel processing left 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste stored in underground tanks until it can be treated for disposal. It now is considered high level waste.

DOE is proposing that waste from fuel processing not be classified as high level waste if it can meet the radioactive concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste.

The limits vary by radioactive isotope. Low level waste is defined by what it contains, not how it was produced.

Alternately under the proposal, waste would not be classified as high level waste if a performance assessment shows it can be safely disposed off without sending it to a deep geologic repository, such as the repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev.

“There are options to send Hanford waste to existing permitted facilities out of the state of Washington and we don’t have to wait for Yucca Mountain to open for some waste streams (under the DOE proposal),” Larsen said.

DOE has declined to say what Hanford waste could be effected by its proposal.

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The Hanford nuclear reservation has 56 million gallons of high level radioactive waste held in underground tanks. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

But the change could make it easier to send waste held in up to 20 of Hanford’s 149 single-shell tanks to a national repository for transuranic waste in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Transuranic waste contains certain levels of plutonium or other isotopes heavier than uranium.

New Mexico’s current leadership will not allow any tank waste to be sent to the repository near Carlsbad.

The proposal also could allow cesium removed from tank waste to be sent to Waste Control Specialist’s disposal facility in Texas.

DOE wants to remove cesium from tank waste to allow it to be treated at the Hanford vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility by a federal court deadline of 2023.

DOE also is in the early steps of considering how to close underground tanks at Hanford that have been removed of most, but not all of the radioactive waste they hold.

Changing the classification of tank waste might help allow a plan of using concrete-like grout to fill the tanks and contain remaining waste.

It’s a plan opposed by Hanford Challenge, which wants more waste removed from tanks now considered empty to regulatory standards.

It also could affect the cleanup of other Hanford waste, such as the estimated 1 million gallons of tank waste that has leaked from the tanks or been spilled into the soil, Carpenter said.

“It could suddenly become not high level waste,” he said.

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The Hanford nuclear reservation has 56 million gallons of high level radioactive waste held in underground tanks. Courtesy Department of Energy

DOE would have far too much discretion in the factors it could consider if it is allowed to determine whether waste does not need to go to a deep repository like Yucca Mountain, he said.

DOE officials in Washington, D.C., want to “spend as little as possible” and get Hanford cleaned up as quickly as possible, he said.

A change in what’s consider high level waste could mean more waste left at Hanford to threaten the environment, he said.

The United States is the only nation that defines high level waste primarily by how it was generated — from reprocessing irradiated reactor fuel — rather than based on its properties, Larsen said.

The Tri-City Development Council supports exploring waste reclassification and thinks it is a step in the right direction, said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president of federal programs.

“We hope the state of Washington will support this opportunity,” Thompson said.

The Washington state Department of Ecology said any change in the way that DOE defines high level waste has direct implications for treatment of Hanford’s tank waste.

“Ecology must be consulted on any proposal that makes such sweeping changes,” said Alex Smith, nuclear waste program manager for the Department of Ecology. “We will work to evaluate the proposal and ensure that any next steps maintain long-term protection of human health and the environment, and protect the Columbia River from risks associated with the waste stored in Hanford’s tanks.”

Murray and Cantwell issued a joint statement saying that as they evaluate the proposal, they will support the state of Washington in its regulatory role and will continue to make sure DOE lives up to its legal requirements at Hanford and protects the health and safety of the Tri-Cities and the Columbia River.

“We appreciate the Department (of Energy) acting in a transparent manner by involving the public in this process, and encourage the department to hold public hearings,” the said.

DOE plans to publish its proposal in the Federal Register this week.

That will start a 60-day public comment period. Comments may be emailed to HLWnotice@em.doe.gov when the comment period starts.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews