Feds are downplaying the dangers of Hanford radioactive waste, says Gov. Inslee

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tours the Hanford tank farms in 2013 accompanied by Northwest news media. He opposes a federal plan to reclassify some of the radioactive waste stored there.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tours the Hanford tank farms in 2013 accompanied by Northwest news media. He opposes a federal plan to reclassify some of the radioactive waste stored there. Tri-City Herald

The state of Washington says a new Department of Energy plan would not protect the Columbia River from radioactive waste at Hanford.

Washington state’s stand, which was announced by the office of Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday, is in opposition to the support by two key Tri-City-area groups for DOE’s proposal. It follows a similar announcement by the state of Oregon on Monday opposing it.

DOE wants to change the way it classifies waste now labeled high level radioactive waste, which requires it to be disposed of in a deep geological repository, such as the one considered at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The federal agency would assess the characteristics and risks of what’s now classified as high level to see if it instead could be treated and disposed of under less restrictive requirements for low level radioactive waste.

Now waste is classified as high level if it came from chemically reprocessing irradiated nuclear fuel.

The Hanford nuclear reservation has 56 million gallons of such waste after plutonium was removed from irradiated fuel to be used in the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

“This is an attempt by the federal government to grant themselves the unilateral authority to leave high level radioactive waste in the ground at Hanford,” Inslee said.

There would be no requirement to allow residents near Hanford, tribal leaders, Hanford workers or public safety officials to have a say in the reclassification of wastes, he said.

“Unilaterally re-classifying high-level waste based on criteria not found in statute, and without consultation with other regulators and states is dangerous and wrong,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

He did not go so far as to threaten a lawsuit, but said his office would ensure that DOE’s legal cleanup obligations are met.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks.

But Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area city and other governments, and the Tri-City Development Council say that DOE is correct to want to classify waste based on its contents rather than its origin.

It could save billions of dollars to be used for other nuclear weapons cleanup work and help allow some Hanford tank waste to be treated sooner, getting it out of leak-prone underground tanks, and disposed of in New Mexico or Texas.

New Mexico has a national repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, that does not accept Hanford tank waste but does accept other Hanford waste, such as debris, contaminated with plutonium.

DOE has previously said that waste in several of the Hanford site’s 149 older waste storage tanks could meet criteria for disposal in New Mexico if tank waste were allowed there.

Texas is home to a commercial disposal facility for low level waste from DOE sites, including three gallons of Hanford tank waste mixed with concrete-like grout as part of the start of a pilot project under special regulatory approval.

“The term ‘high-level radioactive waste’ should be reserved for waste that truly requires disposal in a deep geologic repository in order to ensure public and environmental safety,” said Richland Mayor Bob Thompson, in a comment sent to DOE on behalf of Hanford Communities.

But the state of Washington argued in its comments that there are already ways to reclassify high level waste based on their risk and characteristics, which allow input or oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state of Washington.

That includes provisional plans to vitrify, or incorporate in glass, about 90 percent of Hanford’s tank waste as if it were low level waste and then dispose of it in a Hanford landfill.

A new interpretation of high level waste could allow DOE to grout waste in Hanford’s tanks and leave the tanks in place, increasing the risk to human health and the environment, according to the state’s comments.

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.

A 2012 DOE environmental study concluded that the only way to protect the Columbia River and communities near Hanford is to empty at least 99 percent of the waste in the tanks and then incorporate it into a stable glass form, rather than grouting it, for disposal, according to the state.

DOE has said that science is driving the proposal to allow it to reclassify some waste, according to the state.

But the state argued that current decisions on Hanford waste are already based on the best science and technical analyses possible.

If DOE attempts to reclassify waste violates its existing legal obligations, either in a federal court consent decree or the Tri-Party Agreement, the state could not let that stand, it said.

“There is only one reason to reclassify Hanford’s high level waste, and that is to clear the way for cheaper, less protective waste treatment,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology. “That is not acceptable.”

Hanford Communities is urging DOE to undertake an open and inclusive process to address the concerns of critics of its reclassification proposal.

“If these steps are not taken, it could result in litigation or opposition from regulators which could prevent implementation,” Thompson said in the Hanford Communities letter.

Those who want to learn more about reclassification of high level nuclear waste may attend a talk at 12:30 p.m. Friday at the Richland Public Library. It is organized by the Eastern Washington Chapter of the Academy of Certified Hazardous Material Managers and the Eastern Washington Section of the American Nuclear Society.

Speakers will be Alex Smith, manager of the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, and Jim Conca, a Richland scientist and Forbes columnist.

Related stories from Tri-City Herald

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.