2,000 people agree: DOE plan for Hanford tank waste is not good

Hanford nuclear reservation workers prepare to remove radioactive waste from one of the Hanford C Farm tanks.
Hanford nuclear reservation workers prepare to remove radioactive waste from one of the Hanford C Farm tanks. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

More than 2,000 people submitted comments or signed petitions critical of a proposal for closing Hanford’s underground radioactive waste storage tanks, according to a coalition of environmental and Hanford watchdog groups.

The Department of Energy sought comments on a draft evaluation that concluded no significant threat to the environment would be posed by its plan to close an initial group of Hanford tanks.

The 16 single-shell tanks that make up the group called the C Tank Farm have been emptied of about 96 percent of the radioactive and hazardous chemical waste they once held. The waste was left from the past processing of irradiated uranium fuel to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

DOE has proposed stabilizing the tanks, which still hold about 64,000 gallons of nuclear waste, by filling them with concrete-like grout and leaving them in the ground in central Hanford.

A ground-level barrier would be placed over them to prevent precipitation from infiltrating the grout and the waste left in the tanks.

Capture Hanford tanks map.PNG
Courtesy Department of Energy

The Tri-City Development Council supported the proposal.

The goal for emptying leak-prone single shell tanks is to remove an average of 99 percent of the waste from the tanks.

But if DOE tries three technologies to remove waste from the enclosed underground tanks and can get no more out, it can be allowed by regulators to stop retrievals. It has tried technologies such as different sluicing systems and soaking hardened waste to loosen it.

“The likely alternative to grouting would be to spend substantial amounts of funds — that are better used elsewhere at Hanford — to endlessly try to retrieve the tanks to new standards,” said the Tri-City Development Council in its comment to DOE.

Tank farm workers spent 14 years getting the C Farm tanks emptied to regulatory standards.

The alternative to grouting could be to dismantle and remove the underground tanks, which would pose a substantial risk to workers, TRIDEC said.

Capture historic tanks.PNG
The radioactive waste tanks in Hanford C Tank Farm were constructed during World War II. Courtesy Department of Energy

“Even then, those tank materials would likely be re-buried in a landfill elsewhere at the Hanford Site, meaning that a tremendous amount of time and funding would be allocated for very minimal benefit,” TRIDEC said.

It pointed out that grouting has been used to close DOE’s radioactive waste storage tanks at DOE’s Savannah River Site and at the Idaho National Laboratory.

“We are excited to see this effort move forward (at Hanford),” TRIDEC said.

But others are asking what the rush is, particularly since the closure method used for the first 16 single-shell tanks might set a precedent for all 177 of Hanford’s waste tanks.

Just one other single-shell tank besides the C Farm tanks have been emptied to regulatory standards, with waste transferred to 27 sturdier double shell tanks to await vitrification or other treatment for disposal.

“It’s important to get this right to protect workers, the public and the environment,” said the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Near-term closure of the tanks is not a schedule or budget priority for the state of Oregon, said the Oregon Department of Energy in its comments.

“DOE should continue to evaluate new and more powerful waste retrieval technologies,” the Oregon agency said said.

This 2011 multimedia presentation provides an overview of the Hanford Site—its history, cleanup activities, and a glimpse into the possibilities of future uses of the 586-square-mile government site in southeast Washington State.

Possibilities include more powerful pumps to pump waste out of the tanks and “dry mining techniques” to remove solid waste. Now, liquids typically are sprayed on waste to move it toward a central pump in the tank for removal.

Both Oregon and the state of Washington questioned in their comments to DOE whether adding grout to the deteriorating tanks without mixing the waste meets requirements to incorporate the waste into the grout to protect the environment.

The remaining C Farm waste is both on the bottoms of the tanks and clinging in places to the sides.

The waste could be pushed to the sides of the tank or floated to the top of the grout pour, according to the Oregon Department of Energy. The waste could be in parts of the tanks that are the first to encounter water as the tank liners corrode, it said.

A break at the bottom of a grouted tank would result in untreated waste being released into the ground, the Department of Ecology said.

The two state agencies also are concerned that DOE should be evaluating the tank waste that already has leaked or spilled into the ground in conjunction with its evaluation with the waste that would be left with grout in the tanks.

About 201,000 gallons of radioactive waste is estimated to have leaked or spilled into the soil in the C Tank Farm, according to the Yakama Nation.

The 16 tanks in the Hanford C Tank Farm have been emptied of all but a combined 64,000 gallons of radioactive waste. Most of the tanks have a capacity of 530,000 gallons. Tri-City Herald File

The Yakamas oppose the plan to grout the tanks.

“We are firmly convinced that leaving such radioactive materials in an unstable shallow land disposal for many generations is simply bad policy,” the Yakama Nation said in its comments to DOE. “It will inevitably result in serious threats to the health of Yakama-enrolled members and the public, both by direct exposure and through consumption of contaminated resources.”

Hanford Challenge, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Columbia Riverkeeper and Heart of America Northwest helped raise public interest in the draft evaluation, leading to the 2,000 comments and petition signatures in opposition.

The proposal would have DOE reclassify the waste remaining in the tanks as low level radioactive waste to allow it to be grouted in place. Otherwise, it is legally classified as high level radioactive waste, which is required to be disposed of in a deep geological repository like the one that was proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev.

“The future of the Hanford cleanup is at stake if Department of Energy proceeds with leaving high-level nuclear waste in shallow land burial at Hanford,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge.

“These long-live radioactive products will far outlive their containers and migrate into the river and our food, air and water resources,” he said.

Columbia Riverkeeper accused the Trump administration of making “Hanford a high-level waste dump in all but name.”

Hanford Challenge, Columbia Riverkeeper and the Nuclear Resources Defense Council submitted comments jointly, challenging the legality of reclassifying the waste as low level waste and calling the proposal not protective of human health and the environment.

The proposal must be withdrawn, they said.

DOE has said it is committed to an open, transparent process and will consider comments from states, tribal nations and the public before making a final determination.

The public comment period on the draft evaluation closed last week, but there will be other chances for public comment before a final decision is made.

DOE has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a technical review and a public meeting will be held with DOE and NRC, likely in early 2019.

DOE could issue a final evaluation and determination, including a response to the NRC review and public comments, in the spring.

Additional regulatory steps would be needed before grouting the C Farm Tanks would be allowed to proceed. A separate public comment period would be required to modify DOE’s dangerous waste permit issued by the Department of Ecology.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews