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U.S.: Nuclear waste mislabeled at Washington state site

UPDATED: Thu., April 13, 2017

In this July 9, 2014, file photo, a sign informs visitors of prohibited items on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
In this July 9, 2014, file photo, a sign informs visitors of prohibited items on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Associated Press

RICHLAND – A shipment of nuclear waste from a commercial power plant located on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state was improperly labeled when it was trucked to a commercial disposal site, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

As a result, Energy Northwest, the consortium that operates the Columbia Generating Station nuclear plant, has been temporarily barred by state regulators from sending waste to the U.S. Ecology disposal site located on leased Hanford land, the Tri-City Herald reported Thursday.

The Energy Northwest plant makes electricity and is located on the sprawling Hanford site, which is half the size of Rhode Island.

Energy Northwest is separate from Hanford’s past mission of creating plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons, which ended in the 1980s. Plutonium production left Hanford with the nation’s largest collection of radioactive waste.

The incident occurred when a Nov. 9 shipment from the power plant to the disposal site turned out to be more radioactive than claimed on the shipping manifest, the newspaper said.

The commission is considering issuing a “white” finding against Energy Northwest, indicating a low to moderate safety significance that may lead to additional federal inspections or other enforcement action. A white finding is the second-lowest level of concern among four options.

The potential finding involves “the failure to ensure that radioactive contents of a waste container did not exceed the radiation level requirements for shipping,” according to the commission’s report.

The agency said the cask holding waste trucked to the US Ecology disposal site was approved for transporting waste with about half the radioactivity of the waste the cask contained.

Energy Northwest has said that although radioactivity was not correctly reported for the shipment, it remained at levels within occupational health standards for workers handling the heavily shielded cask.

The shipment was on the road for about 50 minutes from when it left the Columbia Generating Station, the only nuclear plant in the U.S. Northwest, until U.S. Ecology confirmed it had arrived about 10 miles away at the disposal site.

Most of the drive was on Hanford roads that are closed to the public.

US Ecology surveyed the cask for radiation and determined the radiation was seven times greater than the shipping manifest for the package declared, according to Energy Northwest.

Another error was taking a measurement 6 inches away from some of the waste, rather than right against the waste, the report said.

“We have taken a number of immediate actions with regard to how we process and ship low-level material to US Ecology,” Energy Northwest spokesman John Dobken said

The company has had nuclear industry officials assess its program and provided additional training for the employees who handle waste materials and prepare it for shipment, he said. It also put in place new procedures to address issues identified during the recent inspection.

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