This Hanford waste is so nasty it’s kept under 13 feet of water. Feds say it needs more time to deal with it

Hot cells within the Hanford Waste Encapsulation and Disposal Facility were used to package radioactive waste removed from Hanford’s waste storage tanks into 22-inch capsules that now are stored underwater.
Hot cells within the Hanford Waste Encapsulation and Disposal Facility were used to package radioactive waste removed from Hanford’s waste storage tanks into 22-inch capsules that now are stored underwater. Department of Energy

The Department of Energy will have until August 2025 to move highly radioactive capsules from underwater storage in a concrete pool at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The new legal deadline announced last week was set despite the concerns of the Tri-City Development Council, the Oregon Department of Energy and Hanford Communities, a coalition of Tri-City area local governments.

Each submitted comments to the Department of Energy and its regulators saying the capsules holding radioactive cesium and strontium should be moved to dry storage as soon as possible.

The 1,936 capsules, kept under 13 feet of water in an indoor pool in central Hanford, hold about a third of the radioactivity of all of the waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The material was removed from Hanford waste storage tanks from 1974 to 1985 to alleviate the buildup of heat in the tanks.

“These capsules pose a serious risk to the health and safety of our region,” said Richland Mayor Bob Thompson of the Hanford Communities Governing Board, in a letter submitted during the public comment period.

Money appears to be the issue for the Department of Energy.

It and its regulator replied to comments saying DOE had appealed to Congress for an additional $10 million for the fiscal year that started this month, but it was not included in the recently approved budget.

If Congress approves money beyond what DOE requests in the budget for the next fiscal year, DOE and its regulators will consider speeding up the transfer of the capsules to dry storage, said DOE and its regulators.

DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington state Department of Ecology together set legal deadlines for Hanford cleanup work in the Tri-Party Agreement.

“We recognize that budget limitations are likely the main reason for the delay and acknowledge that there are many competing priorities,” said Ken Niles, nuclear safety administrator for the Oregon Department of Energy, in a public comment.

“We simply believe this should be one of the highest spending priorities at Hanford,” he said.

The Oregon Department of Energy first raised concerns in 2013 that the concrete walls of the pool where the capsules are stored have lost structural integrity due to high radiation exposure over four decades.

The DOE Office of Inspector General found in 2014 that the capsule storage pool could be at risk in a severe earthquake.

Capture capsules.jpg
The Hanford nuclear reservation has 1,936 capsules of radioactive cesium and strontium stored under 13 feet of water in a 40-year-old concrete pool. Courtesy Department of Energy

If cooling is lost and the 22-inch-long capsules break, radiation could make the building too hazardous for workers to enter, according to a 2000 report by former contractor Fluor Hanford that looked at a possible worst-case scenario.

The probability of an event that would cause the pool to lose water is low, but would represent a substantial risk to Hanford workers, the general public and the environment, said the comment submitted by Tri-City Development Council officials.

“Considering these risks, and that there are relatively few technological challenges associated with the project, we believe every effort should be made to place the capsules into more secure dry storage as soon as possible,” TRIDEC officials said.

The dry storage plans call for workers to repackage the capsules in a system that includes stainless steel containers to be placed in a steel-lined concrete cask for storage on an outdoor pad in the center of the Hanford site.

Similar systems are used to temporarily store used nuclear fuel at commercial power plants, including at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland.

TRIDEC acknowledged the uncertainty of funding, but said DOE and its regulators should join it in making sure that Congress, DOE officials in Washington, D.C., and the White House Office of Management and Budget understand the urgency of the project.

Dry storage would be a temporary measure.

New deadlines also address the final disposition of the capsules. They set a deadline of the end of 2047 to have facilities in place to prepare for final disposition of the capsules

Options could include opening the capsules and treating the cesium and strontium at the Hanford vitrification plant to turn the radioactive material into a stable glass form for disposal.

Or the capsules could be sent directly to a national repository for disposal, once the nation has one.

The 2047 deadline was picked to make sure a plan is in place while the vitrification plant is still operating, in case that is the option selected.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews