U.S. senator joins nationwide call for caution on Hanford waste change

Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The public needs more time to comment on an issue as important as reclassifying high level radioactive waste at Hanford and other Department of Energy sites, says 75 organizations nationwide.

On Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., added his support to their call for additional time on the DOE proposal.

DOE is considering a change to how it interprets the legal definition of high level radioactive waste, which would allow more flexibility in how it disposes of some waste at the Hanford site.

Defining less of the nation’s nuclear waste as high level could speed up environmental cleanup and save billions of dollars.

But it also could mean more toxic waste allowed to remain in the ground at Hanford, say critics.

Wyden wrote in a letter to Anne Marie White, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, that the proposed definition change could provide less protection for future generations and the environment.

“ . . . (C)hanging the definition of what has always been considered high level waste requiring permanent disposal is a significant change and could lead to dramatically different clean-up practices and outcomes,” he wrote.

He called for a 120-day extension to the public comment period, which now is 60 days ending Dec. 10.

A letter signed by leaders of 75 organizations was sent Wednesday to White making the same request.

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Hanford tank farm employees work to remove a camera while keeping radioactive contamination from spreading at the nuclear reservation’s tank farms. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions.

Among organizations backing the letter were Hanford Challenge, Columbia Riverkeeper, Heart of America Northwest and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The new interpretation would be “a drastic and controversial change” to DOE environmental cleanup policy, the letter said.

“We believe all interested stakeholders — and the DOE — agree that this decision requires thorough and thoughtful consideration by all affected parties,” the letter said.

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.”

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 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 if it can meet the radioactive concentration limits for low level radioactive waste.

While high level waste is defined mostly by the processes that created it, low level waste is defined mostly by its radioactive content.

DOE also would consider a second way to determine that waste from chemical reprocessing not be consider high level. It could be disposed of as low level radioactive waste if an assessment shows it can be safely dispose of without sending it to a deep geologic repository, such as the repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The Energy Communities Alliance — which includes Hanford Communities, a coalition of small governments near the Hanford nuclear reservation — supports the proposal to change the definition.

It has the potential to save $40 billion across the DOE complex, said Richland Mayor Bob Thompson.

DOE has declined to discuss how changing the definition would impact different Hanford waste.

Capture Hanford tanks map.PNG
Courtesy Department of Energy

However, it 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.

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

Changing the classification of tank waste might help a plan to use concrete-like grout to fill the tanks rather than trying to remove additional waste.

Hanford Challenge opposes the change in defining high level radioactive waste, saying it could leave more waste at Hanford, including soil contaminated from past leaks and spills of 1 million gallons of tank waste.

It also gives DOE 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, said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, when DOE announced the proposal.

Comments may be emailed to HLWnotice@em.doe.gov.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews