Editorial: State needs to listen to Tri-Citians on new nuclear waste plan at Hanford

When Tri-Cities leaders weigh in on Hanford issues, state officials should listen.

After all, we are the community most directly affected by what goes on at the federal nuclear reservation.

But it seems the Tri-City perspective is not getting recognized on the Department of Energy plan to label nuclear waste according to its content rather than its origin.

And Tri-Cities comments should count the most.

We believe that if nuclear waste is truly low-level, it should be treated as such.

However, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson believe DOE’s attempt to reclassify nuclear waste is a way for DOE to cut corners on its cleanup mission.

Their distrust of DOE runs deep. And Inslee and Ferguson are bent on thwarting the effort and have pledged to consider “all options” to stop the process.

In a joint statement, Inslee and Ferguson called the relabeling plan a “reckless and dangerous action,” despite explanations by scientists and Tri-Citians close to the issue who say continuing to treat low-level nuclear waste as if it is highly radioactive makes no sense.

Tri-City leaders should not be so easily dismissed.

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 current properties.

The 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 in an underground 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.

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The Hanford nuclear reservation has 56 million gallons of high level radioactive waste held in underground tanks. Tri-City Herald File

However, Inslee and Ferguson said that changing the definition of high-level waste opens the door for the “federal government to walk away from it obligation to clean up millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste at Hanford.”

We believe outside oversight of DOE is critical as it implements this new approach, and DOE should be open to that.

But we don’t think the reclassification effort would lead to the federal government abandoning its responsibility to clean up the waste left from decades of nuclear weapons production.

If we did, we’d be with Inslee and Ferguson on this issue.

Instead we are siding with the scientists, engineers, members of the Tri-City Development Council and Hanford Communities who say getting rid of waste that is truly low level reduces costs by tens of billions of dollars.

And that, in turn, will help direct more money to the most serious cleanup efforts.

Richland Mayor Bob Thompson, chair of Hanford Communities, said Hanford cleanup cost estimates increased this year to $677 billion and will not be complete until 2079. He said it isn’t realistic to assume Congress will provide $11 billion for 60 more years.

He’s right.

DOE’s announcement on relabeling said that no implementation will happen without “appropriate interactions with affected state and local officials.”

Inslee and Ferguson should hold DOE to that promise – not try to undercut the approach completely.

We understand the lack of faith Inslee and Ferguson have in DOE as a bureaucratic institution, but we believe in the science behind labeling nuclear waste based on its content, and we also believe in our community leaders who think this is the right approach.

Inslee and Ferguson should listen to the Tri-Cities and reconsider their stance.