Buried Hanford Nuclear Waste Fires Fed-State Clash

RICHLAND, Washington, May 22, 2003 (ENS) - Nuclear cleanup work at the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford Nuclear Reservation has resumed after a state order halted some operations, but at the same time an uneasy dispute between the state of Washington and the Energy Department continues.

At issue is how to deal with thousands of barrels of nuclear waste buried in unlined trenches since 1970 and the transfer of hazardous waste material from other sites into and out of Hanford, located in southeastern Washington next to the Columbia River.

As a plutonium production complex, Hanford played a role in the nation's defense for more than 50 years beginning in the 1940s. Presently, Hanford is the site of the world's largest environmental cleanup project. The cleanup is governed by a Tri-Party Agreement between the state, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The buried radioactive waste is caught in a thicket of lawsuits and legal directives. On March 4, the state filed a lawsuit to stop all shipments of radioactive waste to Hanford which has been upheld by a judge's injunction.


Hanford is 560 square miles of shrub steppe, sand and sagebrush located on the Columbia River. (Photo courtesy USGS)
On March 10, the state Department of Ecology (Ecology) set a deadline for having facilities in place to treat the waste.

At the end of March, the Department of Energy (DOE) filed a lawsuit against the state saying it had overstepped its boundaries.

On April 30 an Ecology order signed by Director Tom Fitzsimmons outside the Tri-Party Agreement found the Department of Energy in violation of the state's hazardous waste law for failing to properly manage radioactive hazardous waste at Hanford.

It ordered the DOE to cease operations that would generate waste that cannot be treated in a way that will meet the order's requirements for treatment, and it set further deadlines for cleanup operations.

On May 13 the portion of the order about generating radioactive waste was suspended, giving the DOE until June 13 to come up with more information about its plans.

"Out at Hanford there are 75,000 barrels of waste buried in unlined trenches, in all manner of containers but mostly in 55 barrel drums," says Sheryl Hutchison, director of communication and education for the Department of Ecology.

"Those wastes have been buried since 1970, and we've been trying to get the DOE to put a cleanup plan in place. It's the largest stash remaining in Hanford that does not have a cleanup plan in place," she says.

"For several years, we've started to put milestones in place for dealing with this waste," Hutchison says. "They've refused to negotiate to put milestones with an enforceable commitment within the agreement."

The Department of Energy believes that the April 30 order, as it stands, will not allow it to continue viable cleanup operations at the plant.

"One of the sections of the order said the department shall cease to create new mixed waste for which there is no treatment capability," says Coleen Clark, spokeswoman for the Department of Energy in Richland, Washington. "The result is that a lot of our cleanup activities had to be stopped because of that order."


The Plutonium Finishing Plant site on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Photo courtesy DOE Hanford)
Clark says the order especially affects cleanup and stabilization of material at the heavily polluted Plutonium Finishing Plant site, which is slated to be cleaned and demolished. "That was the most severely impacted," she says.

"It's fascinating that they have chosen at this time to listen to what it is we have to say about the cleanup in Hanford," counters Hutchison. "They found one sentence, and they allowed that to spiral out of control. They didn't ask us for clarification. They called the director after work hours and announced a shutdown," she says.

"It's not the way we have worked together in the past. We have seen a different tenor in this administration about how they treat Hanford," Hutchison says.

Negotiations have been conducted during the last couple of years over two milestones concerning the buried waste. One would require the DOE to submit a detailed project plan for managing Hanford's transuranic waste, and another would require it to establish a date by which facilities must be in place to store, treat and process the waste.

There are three kinds of radioactive waste buried at Hanford - transuranic, which is solid radioactive waste containing alpha-emitting radionuclides with half lives greater than 20 years; low-level mixed waste produced by routine operations, environmental and facility cleanup; and transuranic mixed waste.

In December the state said it would provisionally allow waste from two other sites to be stored at Hanford for processing before being sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, but only if a plan for the buried waste was in place by March 1. Negotiations between the state, the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency broke down in February.


Barrels full of transuranic waste stored at the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico (Photo courtesy WIPP)
"The state said we could bring in the barrels, but we would negotiate how to deal with mixed waste," says Clark of the DOE. "In the course of negotiations, it became clear they wanted regulatory authority for retrieval packaging and shipment of Hanford transuranic waste. Negotiations broke down."

The state sees the situation differently. "We tell them, 'you have to deal with the mixed waste.' They allege that we have no authority over the transuranic (TRU) waste. That's where the rub comes," explains Hutchison. "They keep saying we're trying to gain new authority. We're just trying to get them to deal with a massive amount of waste."

Further, Hutchison points out, the authority to force the DOE to build facilities for the storage of the waste is in the Tri-Party Agreement. "They keep telling the public that Ecology has no authority over TRU waste, but in the agreement they said they would have facilities in place to treat the TRU waste. They have given us the authority."

Clark hopes that the 30 day reprieve will allow the DOE to give the state more information about the order and its impact on the cleanup work.

"These are actions stemming from the wording the state chose," she says. "'Thou shalt not create mixed waste.' That's very clear. It's not something sent to review or comment on or a starting point of negotiations. It's very serious."

It's not just the clause about generating mixed waste that bothers DOE. "We feel there could be additional unintended consequences of that order. We want to make sure we're all clear on what they intend."

Hutchison says the state just wants to get the waste out of the ground, separated and packaged safely. "We would be happy knowing that it's repackaged and in a safe situation."