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June 8, 2012 at 6:37 AM

Nuclear Waste Storage: An ugly issue with no solution in sight

The United States is struggling to form a plan to deal with the permanent storage of radioactive nuclear waste. Sites are expected to keep spent fuel onsite until a permanent location is established. Hanford must also store the legacy waste created by 45 years of making weapons grade plutonium.

Entry sign at Hanford Site, Washington, in January 2005. (Photograph by TobinFricke)

HANFORD, Wash — What do you do with multiple tons of radioactive nuclear waste? I’m talking about the amount created by 104 operating nuclear reactors, including 54 million gallons of legacy waste currently sitting in 177 buried, leak-prone tanks at the Hanford Site in central Washington State.

If you don’t have an idea, you’re hardly alone. Even the United States government doesn’t have a plan in place — not even in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear disaster just over a year ago. Today, there continues to be obstacles and delays over what to do with this waste and Washington bears witness to this fact.

In 1989, the U.S. government made a commitment via a tri-party alliance to clean Hanford up by removing all high-level radioactive waste. The agreement by three key parties — the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington Department of Energy — established a 30 year timetable to accomplish this task.

The agreement has been repeatedly amended and milestones now extend more than 35 years in the future. For example, M-062-00, the milestone for completion of pretreatment processing and vitrification of high level and low activity tank wastes, is due in 2047. Vitrification is a process by which the waste is chemically treated and made into glass tubes that will ultimately be stored somewherebut the location has yet to be determined.

Bear in mind that the 50,000 to 1 million gallon tanks were built between the 1940s and 1980s and were designed to last for 20 years.

Clean-up at Hanford Site. (Photograph courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency)

While some clean-up and demolition has been accomplished, there are still questions being raised along with a variety of delays:

– There have been concerns from whistleblowers regarding safety and cost cutting measures.

– Concerns raised by environmental activists about how the waste will be transported across other states such as Oregon.

– Actions by the DOE to reclassify waste as lower level radioactive eventually deemed illegal.

– Delays caused by experts reevaluating their plans due to the level of radioactivity forcing them to rethink their strategy.

– Repeated renegotiation of the timetable pushing out the milestones to complete the vitrification plant currently under construction by contractor Bechtel.

What happened to Yucca Mountain?

Back in 1982 during the Reagan Administration, Yucca Mountain was deemed to be the resting ground for hazardous waste via the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. In 2010 President Obama made the decision to halt the plan to have Yucca Mountain as the country’s nuclear waste repository, extending the question mark as to where the radioactive waste will go.

President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released a 124-page report in January 2012 that does not outline alternative locations, but only stipulates the obvious as well as removing Yucca Mountain as a sound solution for geological reasons.

Who wants nuclear waste in their backyard? Washington State did not have a choice.

In May, President Obama nominated Allison Macfarlane, a nuclear waste expert, to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). She replaces Gregory B. Jaczko who recently resigned. The NRC is responsible for overseeing the 104 operating nuclear reactors. Macfarlane is opposed to Yucca Mountain as the nuclear waste repository.

Tank Farm at Hanford circa 1960. (Photograph courtesy of Department of Energy)

Holding Congress accountable

Both Washington State Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have pushed to keep the U.S. Congress accountable for the clean-up of Hanford. They recently signed a letter along with six other senators that reinforces the critical nature of keeping the cleanup issue forefront as the Senate Armed Services Committee leadership work on the 2013 National Defense Act, which sets defense budget priorities.

Chemists and scientists employed by the Department of Energy, as well as the companies contracted for the cleanup are dedicated as well. The DOE has chemists and scientists’ working on ways to “treat” the nuclear waste to help stabilize it, along with transferring the waste to improved tanks until the vitrification plant is built and the glass-making process can begin. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous and complex job.

Gerry Gerard, a chemist at the Department of Energy, as well as a tour guide for one of the two site tours that the DOE manages, reinforces the challenges and complex nature of the clean-up process.

“2000 tons of plutonium came out of Hanford in 25 years,” he says, noting that all the weapons grade plutonium is accounted for and no longer resides at Hanford. It was taken to Savannah River in South Carolina designated as the site for plutonium immobilization where the DOE disposed of 8.4 metric tons in total of plutonium and converted it to 25.6 tons of mixed oxide reactor fuel.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. (Photography courtesy of the Department of Energy)

Today it costs roughly $480 million dollars a year (and rising) to rid Hanford of all the toxic waste that was the dangerous byproduct of chemically producing roughly 60% of the plutonium that was made to build nuclear weapons.

While the creation of a nuclear arsenal for U.S. defense ended in 1987, both President Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney have declared that the United States must be more energy independent, and both include nuclear energy as part of their energy plans.

But neither has a solution for what to do with the waste — whether it is the waste coming from nuclear energy to be used for power or the legacy waste created for our defense.

The public can weigh in on the situation at Hanford. The Department of Ecology is requesting comments on the Hanford Facility Dangerous Waste Permit which addresses the treatment, storage and disposal of waste at Hanford. The comment period ends on September 30, 2012.

Comments | More in State | Topics: clean up, DOE, EPA

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