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Hanford’s risks are large

Energy Department outlines options for nuclear waste cleanup

Even after billions of dollars are spent cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, radioactive waste could threaten the Columbia River for thousands of years to come.

A government analysis shows that hot spots of uranium, strontium 90 and other potential carcinogens could linger in Hanford’s groundwater for nearly 10,000 years. The analysis is part of a 6,000-page document outlining the U.S. Department of Energy’s options for dealing with leaky underground storage tanks.

But that’s a worst-case scenario, Department of Energy officials said Tuesday night. The goal is to ensure that groundwater leaving Hanford after the cleanup meets drinking water standards, they said.

Officials faced a skeptical crowd at a public meeting in Spokane.

“The impacts to the groundwater and the people who will use it are shockingly high,” said Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog group that advocates stricter cleanup standards. “Our grandchildren will be exposed to this. People will drink that groundwater. It’s a valuable resource and it’s only going to get more valuable.”

Tuesday’s meeting, one of eight in the region, detailed the federal government’s plan to clean up 53 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks at Hanford. The government is expected to finalize a cleanup plan by the end of 2011.

The Department of Energy’s preferred alternative is to remove 99 percent of the waste from the tanks. The waste would be taken to a vitrification plant on site and converted to glass-like logs for safer disposal.

Treating the waste would cost up to $60 billion. The work would be finished by 2052.

The Department of Energy also evaluated shipping low-level radioactive waste from other nuclear sites to Hanford in the same document. There’s currently a moratorium on those shipments.

The moratorium should be permanent, Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple testified during the public comment period. Apple said he’s concerned that radioactive waste would come through Spokane by truck or rail.

“We don’t need any more waste at Hanford,” he said.

If the moratorium is ever lifted, the waste would be trucked to Hanford via Interstate 84, said Mary Beth Burandt, a Department of Energy manager.

The Hanford reservation covers 586 square miles near Richland. During the Cold War, nine nuclear reactors operated at Hanford, producing plutonium for the U.S. weapons arsenal.

The site’s cleanup is governed by the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement, a pact signed by the Department of Energy, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Department of Energy is decades behind schedule for pumping radioactive waste out of the leaking storage tanks, and years behind schedule for startup of the vitrification plant.

In late 2008, the state of Washington sued the Department of Energy to enforce deadlines for Hanford’s cleanup. Last August, the parties reached a proposed settlement, which includes a 2022 deadline for starting up the vitrification plant.

Terms for shipping low-level waste to Hanford from other sites are also part of the proposed settlement. Public sentiment runs strongly against importing waste, said Jane Hedges, the Washington Department of Ecology’s nuclear waste program manager.

“People told us that we shouldn’t allow any waste that didn’t originate at Hanford to come to Hanford,” she said in a phone interview.

Under the proposed settlement, Hedges said the moratorium on shipping new waste to Hanford would continue until the Department of Energy started treating tank waste at the vitrification plant, or until the federal government could demonstrate that importing waste wouldn’t pose more risks.