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Hanford to keep treating groundwater

YAKIMA – State officials have rejected a request by the U.S. Department of Energy to temporarily discontinue treating some contaminated groundwater at the Hanford nuclear reservation, according to a letter released Friday.

The Energy Department last month had proposed halting treatment of contaminated groundwater near one of nine former nuclear reactors along the Columbia River, largely because the current method of treatment is insufficient. Federal officials have been working to develop a new treatment plan by an October deadline.

But state Department of Ecology officials rejected the proposal to eliminate the current program, saying they would prefer the Energy Department propose its new course of action in writing before making changes.

The area in question is about a half-mile-square along the Columbia River near N Reactor, where radioactive strontium-90 from Hanford groundwater was entering the river. In sufficient doses, strontium-90 can cause cancer.

“Until we see the alternative in writing, and not being sure what the benefit is exactly of the treatment, we want to err on the side of safety,” said John Price, environmental restoration project manager for the Ecology Department.

The Energy Department had not yet responded to the letter, but an official said Friday that the department would continue with the treatment as requested.

“The treatment part of it is more expensive than pumping. We’re not really pulling out very much strontium and we’re not really treating it, so we might as well shut it off,” said John Morse, technical director for groundwater for the Energy Department.

“But we’re fine with doing” what the state wants, he said.

Since the 1990s, the Energy Department has been pumping water out of the ground and treating it in an attempt to remove the strontium-90 before injecting the water back into the ground. Both sides agree the current pump-and-treat method has been largely ineffective.

“The treatment only removed about 1 percent of the radioactivity in the groundwater, but it is intercepting that groundwater before it reaches the Columbia River,” Price said.

“It provides some small benefit, we’re just not sure how significant the benefit is,” he said.

Among the new proposals is to bury a barrier of apatite, a mineral that would absorb the strontium-90.