RICHLAND — Grouting rather than glassifying a large amount of radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation could save taxpayers $73 billion to $210 billion, according to a new Department of Energy (DOE) report.
Turning millions of gallons of waste into a concrete-like grout form also could cut 10 years off the time needed to treat radioactive waste now stored in underground tanks and permanently dispose of it, the DOE report estimated.
DOE recently submitted a report to Congress on potential opportunities for different ways to treat waste now held at Hanford and other DOE nuclear sites.
The report was required three years ago by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to look at the feasibility, costs and cost savings of reclassifying high-level radioactive waste to allow it to be treated and disposed of in ways not previously allowed.
“Let’s trust the science and move forward,” said state Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Richland, who has advocated for classifying some tank waste as low-level waste to allow more efficient treatment.
The cost savings identified in the report are “a big step in the right direction, and would assist both DOE and its regulators in focusing on the mission of protecting those mist impacted — local citizens and tribal members,” said Richland Mayor Bob Thompson, chairperson of Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments.
“We need the Hanford site cleaned up, and I’m concerned that it will be very difficult to achieve given current cost estimates,” he said. “We should be exploring alternatives that can reduce costs and expedite the cleanup while maintaining safety and effectiveness.”
The latest cost estimate for the remaining environmental cleanup at Hanford, which was released two years ago, said taxpayers will need to spend $323 billion to $677 billion.
The 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in Central Washington was used from World War II through the Cold War to produce two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
But Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group, found the report “shocking,” said Executive Director Tom Carpenter.
The report discusses reclassifying up to 80% of the 56 million gallons of Hanford tank waste to allow it to be stabilized in a concrete-like grout form, rather than vitrifying, or glassifying it.
That could open the door to grouting waste in tanks rather than emptying the tanks, Carpenter said.
Any waste produced when fuel irradiated at Hanford reactors was chemically processed to remove plutonium is classified as high-level radioactive waste under U.S. law.
But internationally, waste classification is based not on how waste is produced as it is for high-level waste in the United States, but on its radiological risk.
“It makes sense to me that we would manage and treat Hanford’s waste based on its physical characteristics, rather than how it was produced,” said David Reeploeg, the Tri-City Development Council vice president for federal programs.
Already much of the tank waste at Hanford, which by definition is high level, is referred to as low-activity radioactive waste and managed as it if is low-level rather than high-level waste by agreement between the state of Washington and the federal government.
In 2019, DOE adopted a new policy that allows it to reclassify radioactive waste if it determines it does not exceed certain radionuclide concentrations for low-level waste or does not need to be disposed of in a deep geological repository, such as the one proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
However, Congress has banned the new policy from being used in Washington state under the two most recent National Defense Authorization Acts.
High-level waste can still be reclassified but under a more involved process that relies on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The new DOE report to Congress stresses that reclassifying tank waste for grouting is not a proposal, only a look at potential opportunities.
Before any action is taken DOE would need to gather more data, do more analyses and discuss the proposed change with those interested in Hanford, the report said.
The report looks at possibly reclassifying much of the waste stored in underground tanks in part of central Hanford, then grouting it for disposal rather than turning it into stable glass logs at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction.
Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, split between the 200 East Area and the 200 West Area, which are about 7 miles apart.