Environmentalists' aim off the mark on wastes

They aren't exactly breaking new ground.

A coalition of Northwest environmental groups recently announced its opposition to importing any new radioactive waste to Hanford.

The usual suspects are on board -- Columbia Riverkeeper, Heart of America Northwest, Hanford Challenge, Hanford Watch, Center for Environmental Law & Policy, two chapters of the Sierra Club and 14 other groups around the Northwest.

About the best that can be said for this resurrected fight against imported wastes is that it might save coalition leaders some time.

They can just dust off some old rhetoric from past campaigns and be good to go.

But let's drop the pretense that the fight is about Hanford cleanup. If parochial interests succeed in dictating a different nuclear waste policy for each region, Hanford cleanup stands to be the biggest loser.

Most of the nation's high-level nuclear wastes already are here. If the Department of Energy can't transfer wastes between states, then it stays here.

No one is suggesting a free hand for DOE. Skeptics and watchdogs have played an essential role in keeping cleanup programs on track. They're still needed.

But environmentalists ought to be advocating an approach to nuclear wastes that makes sense for the nation.

They could start by insisting that the planned deep geological waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., remain an option.

The Obama administration is trying to eliminate the site from consideration before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission even starts the licensing process to determine whether it would be a safe place for nuclear wastes.

Hanford's high-level nuclear wastes are stranded here until a national repository is licensed and built. It's the bigger threat to Hanford cleanup.

The environmentally responsible course is to push for a comprehensive national strategy for safely isolating dangerous radioactive wastes from the accessible environment.

The coalition's campaign against importing wastes simply adds to the obstacles preventing a rational national waste policy.

Some in the anti-nuclear movement might not see that in a negative light. If they can keep the nuclear industry from solving its waste problem, they can keep plans for new reactors on ice.

That's folly, of course. New reactors are a better choice than most other options. "Green" options such as solar and wind can't replace all the fossil fuel plants that spew greenhouse gases and pollutants into the atmosphere.

Failure to open a permanent waste site means nuclear wastes are left indefinitely in temporary storage at commercial reactors and defense sites near rivers and shallow aquifers. How is that good for the environment?

The lack of a waste plan threatens to leave the United States out of the next generation or two of nuclear development. China and other nations are aggressively pursuing nuclear power production.

The U.S. can help improve safety worldwide, but only if we revitalize our own nuclear industry.

Keeping an eye on DOE's plans for importing off-site wastes to Hanford is a good job for environmental watchdogs.

But opposition is premature.

DOE already has agreed not to send most types of radioactive waste to Hanford for disposal until the vitrification plant begins treating the worst waste now stored in underground tanks.

That's at least 12 years away.

"Citizens of the Pacific Northwest will not tolerate off-site waste exacerbating Hanford's existing threats to the Columbia River and people of the Northwest," the coalition wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

True enough. But they're talking about a problem that may never materialize or might be handled in a way that helps solve waste problems, not exacerbate them.

The bigger threat is the tank wastes that are already here. Treatment may start in 12 years, but will the vitrified glass logs have anywhere to go?

Allowing the administration to abandon Yucca Mountain without a fight while focusing on a smaller problem that may not materialize isn't environmentally friendly.