New nuclear waste plan for Hanford is ‘reckless and dangerous,’ says state

The Department of Energy is changing the way it classifies radioactive waste at Hanford and two other cleanup sites, which could change the standards for treating and disposing of some Hanford waste.

DOE announced Wednesday the change in how it will be interpreting the legal definition of high level radioactive waste at Hanford and at its sites in Savannah River, S.C., and Idaho. Each has high level waste stored in underground tanks.

All options will be considered to stop “this reckless and dangerous action,” said Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a joint statement Wednesday.

It would open the door for the federal government to walk away from its obligation to clean up millions of gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste, they said.

“The Trump administration is showing disdain and disregard for state authority with these actions,” they said. “. . . the administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement.”

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

But Tri-City local government and economic leaders found the new policy encouraging.

“It is a fantastic opportunity,” said Richland Mayor Bob Thompson, chairman of the Hanford Communities, as local officials wonder how long the nation will continue to have the appetite to cover skyrocketing cleanup costs at Hanford.

“We struggle to maintain a Hanford cleanup budget of around $2.5 billion a year,” he said. “It is not realistic to assume Congress will provide $11 billion for 60 more years.”

The change was controversial when it was proposed last year, drawing nearly 5,600 comments.

Critics said it would allow DOE to cut corners, potentially leaving more difficult-to-retrieve waste in the bottom of Hanford storage tanks or not addressing tank waste that has leaked and spilled into the ground at Hanford.

Supporters said it could speed up work, potentially saving billions of dollars and getting waste sent off the Hanford nuclear reservation and other sites for disposal sooner.

“The Tri-City community and TRIDEC want Hanford cleaned up as quickly, effectively and safely as possible,” said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC). “ In order to be successful, the cleanup also needs to be accomplished at a reasonable cost and time frame.”

Radioactive concentration levels

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 stored in underground tanks until it can be treated for disposal. It now is considered high level waste.

DOE’s change of policy would allow waste from fuel processing to be considered low level radioactive waste if it can meet radioactive concentration limits set for low level waste and could safely be disposed of at a site other than a deep geological repository.

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

Capture Hanford tanks map.PNG
Courtesy Department of Energy

“Managing waste based on its contents rather than an arbitrary classification based on origin has merit and deserves serious consideration,” Adrian said. “Exploring new cleanup technologies and out-of-state disposal options, as well as revisiting old policies and regulations that may be impediments to meaningful progress on cleanup, only makes sense.”

The change aligns the United States with international guidelines for waste disposal based on its radiological risk, said Paul Dabbar, U.S. under secretary for science, in a telephone news conference.

“DOE is going to analyze each waste stream and manage it in accordance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, with the goal of getting the lower-level waste out of these states without sacrificing public safety,” he said.

Each tank waste project considered for classification as low level waste would require an environmental study under the National Environmental Policy Act.

DOE will look first at some waste at Savannah River, and no specific plans have been announced for Hanford or Idaho waste.

Could mean more disposal options

At Hanford it is a potential path forward for some of the less radioactive waste — low activity waste — separated out of the waste in Hanford tanks to be turned into a grout-like form and sent to a commercially owned waste repository for low level radioactive waste in Texas.

“What we think this means to us it that some tank waste which must meet NRC requirements can be sent off site for disposal long before the Waste Treatment Plant is operational,” Thompson said.

Hanford is building a $17 billion vitrification plant to glassify tank waste.

The new waste classification system would provide flexibility, based on science, to accelerate environmental cleanup and reduce risks by using less complex treatment methods, Dabbar said.

High level radioactive waste is required to be disposed of in a deep geological repository, such as Yucca Mountain, Nev., with no repository expected to be available for decades.

The new waste policy “is about leaving waste in soil and in tanks,” said state Rep. Gerald Pollet, D-Seattle, and executive director of Heart of America Northwest.

Low activity tank waste could be grouted and sent to Texas under another DOE process, Pollet said.

DOE can work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to treat and dispose of some tank waste to the same standards as low level waste by determining it is “waste incidental to reprocessing” or WIR.

The WIR process already gives DOE a science-based approach to handling waste with more oversight required than the new plan, say critics of changing how high level waste is defined.

‘Dangerous and wrong’

Inslee said in January that the new plan would not protect the Columbia River from radioactive waste at Hanford.

“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 state Attorney General Bob Ferguson at the same time.

The state of Washington said it was concerned that the plan would give DOE unilateral discretion to determine how to classify and dispose of waste that for decades has been managed as high level waste.

Independent regulatory oversight by states and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be gone, according to Oregon’s comments submitted to DOE.

Thompson said Wednesday that DOE had agreed not to take action to reclassify Hanford waste without discussions with state and local officials.

“We hope our state officials will work with DOE to examine how this change can advance cleanup at Hanford,” he said.

New Hanford estimates released by DOE in January put the remaining cleanup costs at the site at as much as $677 billion and work could continue until 2079, Thompson pointed out.

DOE 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, said supporters of the proposal during the comment period.

DOE has previously said that waste in several of Hanford’s older waste storage tanks could meet criteria for disposal in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. WIPP now takes Hanford waste, such as debris contaminated with plutonium, but not high level waste.

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.