How can we expect to effectively address this problem if we aren’t even willing to accurately define it?

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The U.S. Department of Energy recently released new estimates for the cost of cleaning up the Hanford nuclear site in central Washington state. That number could now reach a staggering $677 billion, with active cleanup ending in the year 2079. Under this scenario the federal government would spend, on average, more than $11 billion dollars every year for 60 years.

As leaders in the Tri-Cities — the community closest to and most impacted by the Hanford site — we believe  that the United States simply must find a way to effectively address this problem at a price that taxpayers can afford. One clear step in the right direction is to begin managing the waste based on its actual contents and risks rather than an arbitrary definition developed decades ago.

To summarize, DOE is responsible for the cleanup of waste left over from decades of nuclear-weapons production, including approximately 53 million gallons in underground tanks at Hanford. Federal laws passed in 1954 and 1982 guide the agency’s management of this waste but do not clearly specify how the waste should be categorized. Rather than making a determination, the agency simply decided in the early 1980s to manage much of our nation’s defense nuclear waste as high-level, requiring the highest standards, regardless of the actual amount of radioactivity it contains or risk it poses.

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DOE is now considering moving away from this well-intentioned, but overly costly and inaccurate approach. Instead of arbitrarily making decisions based solely on the origin of the waste, agency officials are proposing to manage this waste based on its actual physical characteristics. This is the same method that countries like France and Germany use to guide their waste-management decisions, and would bring the U.S. closer to international standards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Why does this matter? A risk-based approach would allow DOE to manage, treat and dispose of defense waste in a manner that accurately reflects its contents and the potential risks it poses to human health and the environment. Doing so could reduce cleanup costs by tens of billions of dollars, and has the potential to significantly speed up remediation efforts at Hanford and elsewhere.

DOE has been accused of proposing this change in order to save money and shirk its responsibilities, but this new approach would not mean that the federal government can simply walk away from its cleanup obligations. The federal government has committed to many billions of dollars’ worth of remediation work at Hanford and elsewhere, and budget shortfalls mean that important cleanup projects often don’t get started soon enough, or take too long to complete.

Treating waste based on its actual contents would allow DOE to direct the resources they save toward other important cleanup efforts that would otherwise languish, potentially for years to come. It could also open up pathways to get some waste out of Washington state more quickly. These waste streams would otherwise remain at Hanford for many more years, or even permanently.

In their letter to DOE opposing this proposed change, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson stated, “our communities deserve to be heard on this dangerous idea.” We find it frustrating that in this case the governor and AG aren’t listening to the community that is most directly impacted by Hanford cleanup.

We do not feel that it is a dangerous idea and, to the contrary, believe that it will allow other important cleanup work at the Hanford site to happen faster.

Ultimately, there is high-level defense nuclear waste at Hanford and elsewhere that does need to be treated and disposed of in a deep geological repository. It is some of the most challenging and expensive material that our country has to address. We should not, however, delay cleanup progress and waste taxpayer funds by unnecessarily managing lower-level waste, which scientists agree can be safely disposed at permitted sites, in the same manner. After all, how can we expect to effectively address this problem if we aren’t even willing to accurately define it?

The Tri-City community wants the Hanford site remediated as quickly and effectively as possible, but we see no need to make an already difficult job even harder. Our hope is for DOE to meaningfully engage with the appropriate regulatory bodies, including the Washington State Department of Ecology, to determine, in a technically justified manner, that more waste can be managed as low-level.

Importantly, this will require the state government and our elected officials to keep an open mind and make a genuine effort to reach a reasonable consensus. If they are successful, it will open the door for faster, less costly remediation outside of Washington state while still allowing the work to be accomplished safely and responsibly.

We can then turn our attention and resources to other high-priority cleanup efforts at Hanford, and we will all be better off for it.