State and top fed official at odds over Hanford high level radioactive waste

Hanford workers begin moving radioactive waste away from Columbia River

Hanford workers began moving some of the highly radioactive sludge out of the K West Reactor Basin, located just 400 yards from the Columbia River, on June 12, 2018. It will be stored in below-ground cells until it can be prepared for disposal.
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Hanford workers began moving some of the highly radioactive sludge out of the K West Reactor Basin, located just 400 yards from the Columbia River, on June 12, 2018. It will be stored in below-ground cells until it can be prepared for disposal.

A top Department of Energy official is fighting what he says are misconceptions about a new policy on which Hanford and other nuclear weapons complex waste must be treated and disposed of to the stringent standards required for high level radioactive waste.

The DOE undersecretary for science, Paul Dabbar, said as of now there is no change proposed for waste handled as high level at Hanford.

“We’re proposing nothing here,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to propose anything in Washington state.”

But key state of Washington officials are not buying his explanation.

Dabbar spoke with the Herald after visiting Hanford last week, a visit planned in part to allow a face-to-face discussion with Washington state Department of Ecology’s top official on DOE’s new policy changing how it interprets the legal definition of high level radioactive waste.

He wanted Maia Bellon, director of the state agency, to hear directly from DOE senior leadership about the policy change, which initially could allow DOE to treat some waste at its Savannah River, S.C., nuclear weapons site as low level rather than high level waste.

The meeting went well, he said.

But Bellon, in comments made since their meeting, indicated state officials are unswayed in their concerns about the change.

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Department of Energy Under Secretary Paul Dabbar, in the white hard hat, toured Hanford last week to see progress on environmental cleanup projects. Courtesy Department of Energy

When the new DOE policy on classifying high level waste was announced earlier this month, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a joint statement that all options would be considered to stop “this reckless and dangerous action.”

State: Hanford waste could be reclassified

Bellon said after the meeting with Dabbar that he claimed the new interpretation for high level waste currently only applies to certain waste in South Carolina.

But there was no exclusion for Hanford in the policy change as announced by DOE in the Federal Register, she said.

“So as it stands, the Federal Register notice could be used to make substantial and potentially harmful changes to the ongoing cleanup at Hanford,” she said.

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Department of Energy Under Secretary Paul Dabbar toured T Plant at Hanford, where radioactive sludge from the K West Basin is being shipped for dry storage. Courtesy Department of Energy

She and other state leaders “are concerned that the Department of Energy’s high level waste reinterpretation will be a mechanism for it to do less than what is legally required,” she said.

Congress has passed laws that define high level 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 reprocessing plants for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

The fuel reprocessing left 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste stored in underground tanks until it can be treated for disposal, which is now handled as high level waste. In addition, an estimated 1 million gallons of the processing waste leaked or spilled into the ground in central Hanford.

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

Dabbar: New waste policy science based

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

The new policy “is us looking at this from a science basis of what the content is of any waste stream,” Dabbar said.

It is consistent with international standards, he said. Other countries define radioactive waste by content rather than source, he said.

It also is an idea that has been considered under the Obama administration.

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Department of Energy Under Secretary Paul Dabbar, left, shakes hands with DOE Hanford manager Brian Vance before an all-hands staff meeting in Richland last week.

The bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future created in 2010 by the Obama administration proposed that the nation consider classifying high level radioactive waste based on its radiological contents rather than its source, Dabbar said.

No reclassification of any waste stream now handled as high level may be made without going through legal processes that include an environmental study with the state, he said.

In addition, DOE must get the support of Congress for any specific classification action because Congress appropriates the money for waste treatment and disposal, he said.

DOE now is moving forward with an initial look at whether up to 10,000 gallons of recycled wastewater at Savannah River could be classified as low level radioactive waste rather than high level radioactive waste. As high level waste it must be turned into a stable glass form and stored until the nation has a deep geological repository, such as proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

If the waste is classified as low level, it could be turned into a concrete-like grout form and disposed of off site, possibly at the Waste Control Specialists site for low level waste in Texas.

Dabbar said risk would be reduced by disposing of the waste sooner.

Test Bed Initiative

Classifying some tank waste at Hanford as low level waste has been supported by Tri-City-area local governments and economic development officials who agree that some waste could be treated sooner and at less cost than if it were treated at the Hanford vitrification plant.

One proposal is to grout some of Hanford’s liquid tank waste, which is the least radioactive of the site’s tank waste, at a Perma-Fix facility either in north Richland or Tennessee. It would then be sent to the commercial repository in Texas for disposal.

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The $17 billion vitrification plant is required to be partially completed and start treating some radioactive waste in 2023. Courtesy Bechtel National

DOE has started a pilot project, the Test Bed Initiative, but put it on hold earlier this month after the state proposed opening negotiations for six to nine months with DOE. The state believes that DOE is at risk of missing key deadlines for treating tank waste.

Dabbar said that it is only temporarily pulling back its application to the state for a Test Bed Initiative permit for 2,000 gallons of tank waste.

DOE remains very interested in the initiative, but wants it included in the overall discussion with the state on deadlines, he said.

“This is not something we are taking off the table permanently,” he said.

Although the state has raised concerns about whether DOE will meet a federal court-enforced deadline of 2023 for starting to treat some of the least radioactive tank waste at the $17 billion vitrification plant that is not yet opened, Dabbar said the project is on track.

“As of now, we are going to meet it,” he said. But DOE leadership remains “laser-focused” on making sure its contractors are ready to treat waste on time.

It is one of several environmental cleanup projects that are making good progress at Hanford, he said.

Dabbar praises sludge work

Progress is being made to start digging up the highly radioactive waste spilled beneath the 324 Building near Richland and the Columbia River, and the plumes of polluted groundwater under Hanford are shrinking as contaminated water is treated.

The next big success that the Tri-Cities community can look forward to should come in September when the last shipment of radioactive sludge is expected to be transferred from storage in underwater containers at the K West Basin near the Columbia River to dry storage in central Hanford.

A cask holding radioactive sludge is loaded for the drive to central Hanford to be placed in dry storage. Courtesy Department of Energy

“That’s a great accomplishment by this community, by our contractor partners on a major milestone,” Dabbar said.

A year into the shipping project, 16 of 22 containers of sludge have been shipped away from the river to storage at T Plant.

The sludge was the result of irradiated fuel that was not processed to remove plutonium at the end of the Cold War. Before the fuel was removed in 2004, it corroded underwater and fuel corrosion particle, metal fragments and dirt combined to create about 950 cubic feet of sludge.

After getting the sludge into underwater containers and the sludge from the K East Basin consolidated into the K West Basin, preparations began in 2009 to get the sludge moved to dry storage away from the river.

Future of Hanford Advisory Board

Protecting the Columbia River from the radioactive sludge has been one of the priorities of the Hanford Advisory Board, a board with representatives of Hanford workers, local residents, local governments, environmental groups and others that provide advice to DOE and its regulators on environmental cleanup.

It is among the federal advisory boards that DOE will be evaluating after a June 14 order by the president that all federal agencies evaluate the need for each of its federal advisory committees and disband at least a third of them to reduce costs and improve government efficiency.

Dabbar has had no DOE conversations on which of the many DOE boards may be cut, he told the Herald.

The Hanford Advisory Board would be considered in conjunction with the umbrella board for different DOE cleanup sites, the Environmental Management Site Specific Advisory Board.

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.