Watchdog groups oppose sending Hanford waste to New Mexico

Sending up to 3.1 million gallons of radioactive waste to New Mexico for disposal is no solution to Hanford's leaking underground tanks, according to Hanford Challenge and two other groups focused on environmental issues.

Hanford Challenge of Seattle, the Southwest Research and Information Center of Albuquerque, N.M., and the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program in Washington, D.C., have sent a joint letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

A Department of Energy proposal to send some of Hanford's tank waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, near Carlsbad, N.M., is costly, unwise and illegal, said the letter.

Instead, DOE should be working to build sound tanks both to get waste out of leaking tanks and also to prepare to eventually feed the waste into the vitrification plant. That plant is being built to glassify up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium.

Sending waste from up to 20 of Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks to WIPP "may provide DOE with an additional method to expedite the overall tank waste retrieval effort at Hanford," DOE said in a statement Wednesday.

It's previously said that before waste could be sent it must convince the state of New Mexico to modify the WIPP permit to allow certain tank waste to be sent there.

WIPP is the nation's repository for transuranic waste -- which typically is contaminated with plutonium -- but does not accept high-level radioactive waste.

DOE also would need to prove to regulators that certain tank waste could be classified as transuranic, rather than high-level.

It's proposing addressing eight to 11 tanks initially that might be treated for disposal at WIPP with mobile, tank-side systems to dry the waste or by trucking the waste to Perma-Fix Northwest near Hanford for treatment. Those tanks include five of the six tanks newly discovered to be leaking radioactive waste into the ground.

But the groups writing the letter said legal issues are far more complex than modifying the WIPP permit.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act defines the tank waste as high-level waste and a 2003 ruling in a lawsuit brought by the National Resources Defense Council also found that all waste in Hanford tanks is high-level radioactive waste, the groups said.

To allow the waste to be sent to New Mexico, Congress would need to change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge. In addition, the Washington and New Mexico watchdog groups believe Congress would have to change another law that governs what can be buried at WIPP.

Attempts to send the waste to New Mexico would lead to lawsuits that would cause further delays, Carpenter said.

The state of Washington has estimated that if a plan to send the waste to New Mexico could be worked out, the soonest any waste could be sent is in two to four years.

The Washington State Department of Ecology also has been adamant that there must be a clear path forward for the waste to prevent it from being removed from the tanks with the plan of sending it to WIPP, only to have it orphaned at Hanford.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in late January called for new tanks to be built at Hanford after one of the nuclear reservation's double-shell tanks was discovered to have a leak within its inner shell.

DOE has been working to transfer waste from single-shell tanks, which include the six leaking single-shell tanks, into double-shell tanks until the waste can be treated. However, the double-shell tanks are getting close to capacity until waste treatment starts to make more room in them.

Then earlier this month, Inslee said that DOE's proposal to send a limited amount of waste to New Mexico was a first step toward addressing leaking single-shell tanks.

DOE has discussed sending waste to WIPP for years, but as recently as 2009 said that it was no longer considering sending any waste there, according to a Federal Register notice cited by the three groups.

The option came up as an alternative in a comprehensive environmental study, the Hanford Tank Closure and Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement, released in December, and DOE said this month that the option now is its preferred alternative.

But the watchdog and environmental groups did not believe they needed to submit comments opposing that option, because DOE had earlier said it was not considering that, they said.

"No policy, cost or legal analysis on the topic has been completed and therefore there is no credible basis at this time for DOE's preferred alternative of sending Hanford tank waste to WIPP," said the letter to Chu.

The three groups predicted that drying the tank waste to prepare it for WIPP would be costly, particularly for the comparatively small portion of the 56 million gallons that could be treated that way, and pointed to the lack of specifics on plans to treat the waste for shipment.

No new project at Hanford is done cheaply or quickly, and Congress is not in the mood to fund every proposal, Carpenter said.

"We want to see (DOE) do something less risky and with more chance of success," he said.

The three groups believe that is to build more tanks to store the waste, which also would give DOE time to address technical issues at the vitrification plant under construction. DOE has said it may not be able to meet a legal schedule for treating the waste, which includes a start date of 2019, because of technical issues.

DOE has said that building one double-shell tank could cost $100 million, and building a group of six tanks could take five to seven years.

But Hanford Challenge said that the last double-shell tanks added at Hanford were built in 18 months at a cost of $10 million each. Although that was in the '80s, the cost should not be 10 times more now, he said.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Hanford Advisory Board also have called for new storage tanks to be built.

DOE said that sending some waste to WIPP possibly could reduce environmental risks in Washington state without affecting the safe performance of WIPP.

With the current energy secretary leaving office soon, the three environmental and watchdog groups have requested a meeting with the new energy secretary, who likely will be Ernest Moniz.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews