SEATTLE — The tanks are still there, 177 in all, packed with 53 million gallons of radioactive waste. One million gallons have leached into the desert soil.
A decade from now, this byproduct of the atomic age at Hanford nuclear reservation was to be turned into 14-foot-long glass rods, loaded in steel canisters and shipped to Nevada, where it could sit forever beneath a mountain. An additional 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel would go with it.
But now the worst waste from the country’s most polluted place has nowhere to go.
The Obama administration’s recent decision to withdraw licensing to build a high-level nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain leaves future storage of the Manhattan Project’s nastiest goop undecided. Some worry the move means waste could remain at Hanford indefinitely and that nuclear garbage from elsewhere might even join it.
The decision has prompted a legal fight between the federal government and the states of Washington and South Carolina — and a public-relations war with local newspapers in the Tri-Cities and Aiken, S.C., which also produced plutonium during the Cold War.
President Obama and his energy team have faced withering criticism from Congress — including from many in the president’s party. Even some who agree Yucca Mountain might not be the best place to store nuclear waste were quick to highlight what they see as the naked politics of Obama’s move.
Yet, as a blue-ribbon commission met for the first time last week to start the new hunt for permanent nuke-waste storage, some citizen activists who watch Hanford most closely remained entirely unfazed.
“A lot of us were quite confident way back in 1995 that we would probably end up right at this spot,” said Todd Martin, former chairman of the Hanford Advisory Board, an independent, nonpartisan group that attempts to advise the Energy Department on Hanford cleanup. “I’m much more concerned about when we’re going to make our first teaspoon of glass.”
The road to Yucca Mountain always has been messy. In the 1950s, the National Academy of Sciences urged disposal of nuclear fuel and waste underground. Salt beds in Michigan and Ohio were politically unpalatable, and a mine in Kansas was found to be filled with holes from oil and gas wells.
More burial sites were batted about for years until Congress eventually selected a mountain ridge 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Over a quarter-century, the government spent $10.5 billion studying the region’s rock formations, climate and hydrology. Roughly $290 million of that was paid by Northwest ratepayers who are taxed on power from the lone nuke plant outside Hanford.
But Yucca is wildly unpopular in Nevada, a swing state that’s home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an early supporter of Obama. Reid faces a tough re-election race in November.
As a presidential candidate, Obama — like Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards — declared himself an opponent of Yucca Mountain, citing concerns about earthquakes and transportation of waste across the U.S.
When Obama killed it, reaction was swift. The Tri-City Herald and the Aiken Standard of South Carolina wrote a joint editorial condemning a decision that threatens to “keep these deadly legacies in our backyards.”
Reps. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton; Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island; and Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, signed letters highlighting the billions of wasted dollars — and the billions more to come in legal claims by power plants paying to guard nuclear fuel the government promised to store.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., angrily challenged Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in a public hearing: “What seems to be missing (in the decision) is the why.”
In a rambling answer, Chu said, “Other things, other knowledge, other conditions as they evolved made (Yucca Mountain) look increasingly not like an ideal choice.”
When Murray asked for scientific evidence, Chu said, “It’s an unfolding of issues that continued, and I would be happy to talk to you in detail about some of the issues.”
Yucca had legitimate problems, said Tom Cochran, a nuclear physicist with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. The site rests above a water table, and moisture leaks through. It might not have been big enough to hold all the waste.
Still, “I wouldn’t have done it the way Obama did it,” Cochran said. “He came in saying he was going to make decisions based on science. In this case, I think it was a political debt to Harry Reid.”
Cochran said Yucca could have held some waste safely, but he, like others, now expects to see a push to consolidate waste from across the country at regional sites such as Hanford.
The Washington Attorney General’s Office fears delay in finding a permanent home increases the odds that waste will stay in the state — and that other waste will join it. Idaho has a written agreement that spent fuel it stores from nuclear subs must leave the state by 2035.
“If Idaho has a legal agreement that the naval waste needs to leave and you don’t have a repository somewhere, well, Hanford is right next door,” said Andy Fitz, an assistant state attorney general. His office has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to let the state intervene in the decision to withdraw Yucca’s license, and may turn to other legal challenges if that fails.
Ken Niles, with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, agreed: “They always say Hanford has the infrastructure, the experience, the trained workers, and it’s a desert.”
Meanwhile, construction of the treatment plant to turn Hanford’s poisons into glass is designed to meet standards appropriate for Yucca. Some fear a new site will mean new delays and new technical problems for a project that’s already one of the most complicated and expensive in the world.
“The risk is whenever you get behind and let the waste pile up faster, the government tends to start cutting corners,” Cochran said. When contractors in South Carolina fell behind in cleaning up waste, local politicians pushed to change laws to let them leave it in the tanks — “it was just crazy,” he said.
That’s why Todd Martin, with Hanford’s advisory board, is chiefly concerned with getting the poisons out of Hanford’s 177 tanks. The point of turning waste into glass is to neutralize the radioactive materials so they can’t ever leach into the ground again. After that, he’s less concerned about where it goes, even if it winds up being stored on Hanford’s plateau.
“The primary goal should be to get it out of the tanks and get it stable,” he said.