PNNL backs technical merits of fed’s controversial new radioactive waste policy

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and five other Department of Energy national laboratories strongly support the technical merits of DOE’s revised interpretation of high level radioactive waste that could be applied to Hanford.

DOE announced the new policy on Wednesday. It would allow consideration on a case-by-case basis whether certain waste should be treated as high level waste, giving DOE more flexibility to treat and dispose of some waste as low level radioactive waste.

During the decision process, PNNL in Richland and five other labs sent a letter of assessment to Energy Secretary Rick Perry in “strong support” of the ability of the then-proposed policy to safely isolate the waste from humans. The letter, sent March 25, was obtained by the Energy Communities Alliance and released Thursday.

The six labs provide technical and programmatic support to DOE’s environmental cleanup program.

“The national laboratories have reviewed the proposal and support the revised interpretation based on its technical attributes and potential complex-wide benefits,” the letter said.

The proposed change is controversial, with critics saying it could allow DOE to cut corners with environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation and other DOE sites.

Among the critics are Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who said they would consider all options to stop a “dangerous and reckless action.”

Now Hanford waste that is highly radioactive and created by processing irradiated fuel to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons use is classified as high level waste. High level Hanford waste, which is stored in underground tanks, must be disposed of in a deep geological repository.

Preserves disposal space

The new plan would allow DOE to consider the waste’s radiological characteristics, which determines risk, and the capabilities of the planned disposal site, the national labs said.

The determination would have to meet Nuclear Regulatory Commission and International Atomic Energy Agency policies, which include requiring deep geological disposal for waste with high levels of radiation and long-lived radionuclides, the national labs said.

The new policy has the advantage of expanding disposal options based on the hazard level of the waste and using existing licensed disposal sites to limit the time that waste must be stored across the DOE complex, the national labs said. DOE is decades away from opening a deep geological repository, such as the one proposed at Yucca Mountain.

It preserves deep geological disposal space for waste that is truly highly radioactive, they said.

The new policy also recognizes advancements in characterizing waste, treating waste and understanding how radioactive constituents behave in different disposal scenarios, they said.

“These advances allow for more effective processing without compromising the safety of the environment,” they said.

The national laboratories signing the letter in addition to PNNL include Savannah River National Laboratory, S.C.; Idaho National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., Sandia National Laboratories, N.M and Calif., and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tenn.

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.