Congressman blocks DOE from reclassifying high level Hanford radioactive waste

DOE describes its new radioactive waste reclassification system

The Department of Energy explains the benefits it sees in its decision to change how it interprets the definition of high level radioactive waste at Hanford and other sites.
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The Department of Energy explains the benefits it sees in its decision to change how it interprets the definition of high level radioactive waste at Hanford and other sites.

The Department of Energy would be blocked from using its controversial new interpretation of high level radioactive waste at Hanford under a key military spending bill for the next fiscal year.

DOE announced in early June that it believed some waste now managed at Hanford and other nuclear weapons sites as high level waste has low enough radioactivity that DOE could appropriately make the decision to treat and dispose of it to the standards used for low level radioactive waste.

Critics have argued that the new DOE policy would allow DOE to cut corners on cleanup, while supporters say it could speed up environmental cleanup and get radioactive waste shipped off of Hanford and other sites for disposal sooner.

Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is among the critics.

The Renton, Wash., Democrat proposed and won approval for an amendment in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for the next fiscal year to prohibit DOE from using any money to apply the new interpretation to any waste in Washington state.

The full bill passed the House Friday on a vote of 220-197.

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Environmental cleanup is underway at the 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation. The underground tank farms, storing waste from the past production of plutonium, are in the center of the site. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Senate has already passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which does not include the restriction.

The two versions of the bill must be reconciled before the final version is sent to the president to be signed into law.

No Hanford plans now for policy

The amendment included in the final version of the House bill was revised from the amendment Smith first proposed to apply only to Washington state and the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The original version of the amendment would have prohibited any DOE spending in fiscal 2020 to apply the new interpretation of high level radioactive waste unless each application of the interpretation was approved by the governor of the state with the radioactive waste. Idaho and South Carolina also are managing some waste as high level.

If the provision blocking the new interpretation for Hanford waste in 2020 does make it into the final bill, it may not change the handling of any waste.

Paul Dabbar, the DOE undersecretary of science, said last month that DOE has no immediate plans to use the new interpretation at Hanford.

DOE initially will study whether up to 10,000 gallons of recycled wastewater at Savannah River, S.C., could be classified as low level radioactive waste rather than high level waste.

But even without a direct effect, the House amendment adds to the opposition of the new DOE interpretation coming from Washington state Democratic leaders.

In early June, when DOE announced its new policy, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, released a joint statement saying all options would be considered to stop “this reckless and dangerous action.”

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

“Unilaterally reclassifying high level waste based on criteria not found in statute, and without consultation with other regulators and states, is dangerous and wrong,” said Ferguson earlier in the year when the new policy was under discussion.

Critics are concerned DOE could leave more waste in Hanford’s underground tanks or not clean up tank waste that has leaked or spilled into the soil at Hanford.

Waste definition based on source

Congress has passed laws that define high level 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 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 waste stored in underground tanks until it can be treated for disposal, which is now managed as high level waste.

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.

The new policy is consistent with international standards, say DOE officials. Other countries define radioactive waste by content rather than source.

The new policy has support in the Tri-Cities, including from the Tri-City Development Council and Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area city, county and port governments.

Tri-City leaders see Hanford benefits

“The common-sense approach to define Hanford’s defense waste by its radioactive toxicity creates more options for permanent disposal of this waste outside of Washington state,” TRIDEC said in written comments submitted to DOE earlier this year.

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Fog rolls over the vitrification plant under construction at the Hanford nuclear reservation. The Department of Energy is considering a new plan to prepare waste to feed to the plant when it begins operating by a court-enforce deadline of 2023. Courtesy Bechtel National

TRIDEC President Carl Adrian has argued that “revisiting old policies and regulations that may be impediments to meaningful progress on cleanup only makes sense.”

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 concrete-like form and sent to a commercially owned waste repository for low level radioactive waste in Texas.

It could allow some tank waste to be treated for disposal long before the Hanford vitrification plant is operating, Richland Mayor Bob Thompson has said. Thompson is the chairman of Hanford Communities.

DOE is working to meet a court-enforced deadline to start treating some tank waste at the $17 billion vitrification plant by 2023.

Grouting some of the waste and disposing of it in Texas could save billions of dollars, say supporters of the proposal.

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.