By Annette Cary
After a bitter fight nearly 15 years ago to exclude Hanford from a new federal law for reclassifying some radioactive waste, the state of Washington now sees that law as the best alternative to ensure adequate cleanup of the nuclear reservation.
“The current process for reclassifying and disposing of Hanford tank waste is unclear and under a cloud of potential litigation,” the state said in a proposal made public on Tuesday.
The change of course comes after the Department of Energy published a federal register notice in 2018 that would allow DOE more flexibility in what waste must be treated and disposed of to the stringent criteria that cover high level waste.
Critics say that the DOE’s loosened interpretation of what is high level radioactive waste would give the federal government too much discretion with too little independent oversight on what happens to Hanford waste.
For example, the state and Hanford watchdogs fear that it could allow DOE to add concrete-like grout to some underground tanks at Hanford without first emptying them of radioactive waste.
The change has been so controversial that the Federal Register notice drew almost 5,600 comments.
But it also had supporters, including Tri-City interests, who said it could save $40 billion across the DOE national complex for more pressing environmental cleanup at Hanford and other sites.
But even before the Federal Register notice was issued, the state of Washington was considering whether it should be covered by the federal law it had fought.
“Our preferred pathway is definitely ‘3116’,” said Alex Smith, program manager of the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program.
Now the federal government defines high level radioactive waste according to its source.
Federal law that applies to all states define high level radioactive waste as waste that results from processing irradiated nuclear fuel if the waste is “highly radioactive.”
At Hanford, chemicals were used to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel at huge processing plants. The plutonium was produced from World War II through the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
The fuel processing left 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste stored in underground tanks until it can be treated for disposal. All the tank was now is technically classified as high level waste.
High level waste must be vitrified — turned into a stable glass form — and disposed of in a deep geological repository, such as proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
But since the 1990s DOE and the NRC have considered whether key radionuclides could be removed from about 90 percent of Hanford tank waste, leaving just 10 percent to be treated and disposed of as high level radioactive waste.
RECLASSIFICATION LAWSUIT RISK
In the early 2000s, as a result of a series of letters between the state of Washington and the federal government, DOE issued Order 435.1, which says high level waste can be reclassified for less stringent treatment and disposal if radionuclides are removed to the extent practicable.
In addition, the waste form — such as glass or grout — must be protective of the environment given an assessment of the disposal location.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, already has succeeded in getting a moratorium on use of the reinterpretation through September at Hanford, and that would be made permanent.
DOE said in the Federal Register that high level waste could be reclassified if it meets the radioactive concentration limits set for the highest contaminated low level radioactive waste, Class C.
Low level waste is defined by what it contains, not how it was produced.
While the state finds that much authority to reclassify waste in the hands of DOE alarming, the change has support from Tri-Cities area groups.
STATE, LOCAL GOVERNMENTS DIFFER
It would allow options to send some Hanford tank waste offsite, according to Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments.
That could include grouting some tank waste and sending it to a repository in Texas for disposal or allowing some of the waste to possibly be sent to the nation’s repository in New Mexico for transuranic waste, or waste that contains certain levels of plutonium or other isotopes heavier than uranium.