Not all nuclear waste is the same. It shouldn’t be treated that way

Let’s call it what it really is.

If much of the nuclear waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation truly is low-level, then continuing to name it high-level and treating it like it’s highly radioactive and highly dangerous makes no sense.

The Department of Energy wants to change the current labeling system so it will have more flexibility in disposing of the less harmful waste. However, critics who don’t trust DOE’s motives see the effort as a way for the agency to cut corners on clean-up.

We join with other Tri-City leaders, scientists and engineers close to the issue who say nuclear waste should be defined by its characteristics and risk, and not its origin.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that determines nuclear waste classifications based on where that waste was generated — from reprocessing irradiated reactor fuel — rather than its present properties.

That standard was set decades ago by the Atomic Energy Commission, but now scientists say various processes and a radioactive decay life or two have altered the composition of some of the “high-level” waste so it isn’t as hot anymore.

Changing the classification is significant because high-level waste must be disposed of carefully, deep underground in a geologic repository that has yet to open.

But low-level waste can be encased in concrete-like grout and sent to a commercial repository in Texas. It is a much quicker process, and the more waste we can treat and ship out of our region, the better.

In addition, it’s estimated that the reclassification plan could save DOE $40 billion, which could then be directed to higher-risk projects at Hanford and other nuclear sites.

Cleanup funds won’t last forever

Representatives from the Tri-City Development Council, the Hanford Communities organization, including it’s chairman Richland Mayor Bob Thompson, met with the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board about their concerns.

They believe that the term “high-level” waste should be reserved for waste that truly is high-level, and we agree. We know the billions of dollars allocated for Hanford cleanup won’t last forever, and we need to get as much waste as we can disposed of safely and quickly. This proposed label change would speed up the clean-up process and save money.

The concern is that DOE officials might take advantage of this reclassification process and, as Gov. Jay Inslee said, “… grant themselves the unilateral authority to leave high-level radioactive waste in the ground at Hanford.”

We wouldn’t want that either, and we understand Inslee’s doubts.

DOE move undermines trust

It didn’t help that DOE decided in May — without public review or comment — to restrict the Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s access to nuclear sites and information. Such a move completely undermines the trust needed to garner support for its waste reclassification efforts.

So DOE officials will have to be willing to allow for some outside oversight of its plan because we doubt reclassification will happen without it

They also will have to do a better job of making their case — particularly to regional lawmakers — if common sense is to stand a chance.

We need Inslee and other lawmakers to keep an open mind and embrace the science that supports this effort. Politics should not get in the way of this one, sensible change to Hanford cleanup.

All parties should agree, at the very least, that low-level waste should not be treated like high-level waste just because that’s how the language was set up originally. If it is low-level, then it should be labeled low-level and disposed of quickly and safely.

DOE officials have the right idea. They need to sell it.