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Wash. state reverses course on some nasty Hanford nuclear waste. Alternative was worse

Tri-City Herald logoTri-City Herald 2/12/2020 By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

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.

Waste classification definition

State officials have seen what’s happened in the 14 years since Congress passed Section 3116 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2005 at the two states it covers, Idaho and South Carolina.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has provided a detailed technical review of the proposed treatment and disposal of any waste that falls under the law in those two states, along with a state review, said Washington state officials.

If the law is amended with specific provisions for Hanford, “3116” could also work to allow certain Hanford waste to be reclassified but still treated and disposed of in ways that protect the environment, Smith said.

The state is in talks with the U.S. Congressional delegation responsible for Hanford.

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.

For instance, 90 percent of the Hanford tank waste could be glassified at the vitrification plant under construction, but then buried in a lined landfill at Hanford rather than being sent to a deep geological repository such as Yucca Mountain.

The state has supported that reclassification.

But it is concerned that Order 435.1 also includes the caveat that DOE can apply other criteria as it sees fit, according to the state of Washington.

A lawsuit was filed when the order was issued, and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a legal determination must wait until DOE makes a decision to leave some high level radioactive waste in place at Hanford.

Moving Hanford under 3116 could benefit DOE by removing the risk of litigation that comes with Order 435.1 or allowing DOE more leeway in the definition of what is high level waste as announced in the Federal Register, Smith said.

Section 3116 also provides a pathway with certainty for DOE, without requiring it to have a separate reclassification process for the Hanford site, Smith said.

Certainty for state and DOE

It would benefit the state by requiring any reclassification decision to be consistent with a state-issued permit or closure plan and requiring NRC involvement, Smith said.

“It looks like a more certain pathway for us because it does not have that vulnerability that 435.1 does,” Smith said.

Washington state was concerned 15 years ago that 3116 would allow DOE to leave more waste in tanks, even though legally binding Tri-Party Agreement worked out between the state and federal agencies requires 99 percent of waste to be retrieved from Hanford’s 177 underground tanks before they are closed.

There was also concern about what 3116 would mean for tank waste that has already leaked and spilled into the soil and for waste in pipes and other ancillary equipment associated with the underground tanks.

But the state of Washington has seen robust risk assessments based on NRC standards done in Idaho and South Carolina, easing its concerns.

NRC also is involved in pending decisions under Order 435.1, but would have more independence under 3116.

But the state still wants to amend 3116 to better protect the environment at Hanford.

“We’re not adding burdens that they haven’t already agreed to,” Smith said. “it is just being more formalized.”

The proposed amendment does not go beyond provisions already in the Tri-Party Agreement, she said.

State wants law amended

The NRC review and other 3116 requirements would be applied to soil with tank waste contamination and the ancillary equipment at the Hanford tank farm, under the proposed amendment.

DOE would be required to consult with the state of Washington on any proposed reclassification.

And DOE would be prohibited from using is reinterpretation of the definition of high level waste as outlined in the Federal Register notice.

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.

Alternately under the DOE reinterpretation, waste could no longer be classified as high level waste if it cannot be safely disposed of without sending it to a deep geologic repository.

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.

Energy Communities Alliance — a nationwide coalition of local governments near DOE sites, including Hanford Communities — says the clarification to the definition of high level waste could save the nation as much as $40 billion.

The Tri-City Development Council supports exploring waste reclassification and thinks the change posted in the Federal Register is a step in the right direction.

It also supports adding Washington state to Section 3116, said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president for federal programs.

Hanford Communities also sees value in adding Washington state to Section 3116 after seeing the law used at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and in Idaho to close waste tanks, said Pam Larsen, Hanford Communities executive director.

But neither Hanford Communities nor TRIDEC support the state’s proposed amendment to 3116 as it is currently written.

Reeploeg said the amendment would add restrictions which TRIDEC believes would limit opportunities to expedite cleanup in the future.

Bob Thompson, a Richland city councilman and chairman of the Hanford Communities board, said the organization cannot support the additional authority the state wants in the law.

There is no reason to make changes to the law that could make it more cumbersome or environmental cleanup more expensive, he said.


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