The Trump Administration on Wednesday finalized a controversial rule to change the federal definition of high-level radioactive wastes, a move that intensifies a clash with Washington state leaders over the future of the Hanford cleanup.
The Energy Department framed the new rule as a way to speed up and safely cut the costs of treating radioactive wastes stored at the Hanford site in South Central Washington, where plutonium was produced for nuclear weapons as well as federal nuclear sites in Idaho and South Carolina.
But state officials say the rule change could have the opposite effect — giving the federal government the authority to leave more radioactive wastes at Hanford without the processing needed to protect the surrounding land, groundwater and the Columbia River.
“We will consider all options to stop this reckless and dangerous action,” said a joint statement released Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, which accused the Trump Administration of writing a rule that violates federal law.
The move also was criticized by groups that watchdog the federal nuclear cleanups, with a joint statement by Hanford Challenge and the Natural Resources Defense Council accusing the Energy Department of giving itself the authority to abandon radioactive waste storage tanks in the three states.
The Trump administration says it “is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower-level waste currently housed in three states,” said Undersecretary of Energy Paul Dabbar, in a statement released Wednesday announcing the final rule.
In Washington state, the Trump administration move also drew some support.
“This is a fantastic opportunity … we hope our state officials will work with DOE (the Energy Department) to examine how this change can advance the cleanup at Hanford,” said Bob Thompson, chairman of the Hanford Communities, an organization formed by four Hanford-area cities and Franklin and Benton county governments.
The rule affects the most challenging and expensive part of the Hanford cleanup — some 56 million gallons of waste, a mix of liquids, sludges and a moist sandlike material called salt cake — that have been stored in aging tanks, some of which are leaking. These are the leftovers from the plutonium production, and under the old rule they were all considered high-level radioactive wastes.
State officials say that — under their current agreement with the Energy Department — much of this waste must be bonded into glass logs, which is considered to be the safest, but most costly, form of long-term storage. That would happen at a still-unfinished $17 billion waste treatment complex that has had numerous setbacks and is forecast to begin limited operations by 2022 at costs expected to top $323 billion.
Once sealed into the glass logs, the state has agreed that the less hazardous wastes, which accounts for most of the volume in the tanks, could then be stored at Hanford.
Under the new rule, state officials say that the federal government could back away from the commitment to process most of the tank wastes into the glass logs. Instead, the rule would open the door to leaving most of the wastes in the tanks at Hanford, encasing them in a concrete-like grout.
“The problem (is) concrete is porous and relatively short-lived. It might keep the waste out of the water table for a few years, or even a few decades, but eventually waste mixed with concrete will seep out,” wrote Randy Bradbury, a state Ecology Department official in a blog post critiquing the federal rule change.
The Energy Department already is planning to use the grout, along with surface barriers, to seal 16 tanks that have been largely emptied of radioactive wastes but still have some leftovers in their bottoms. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in an independent review, has found shortcomings in the Energy Department plan, questioning many of the assumptions and requesting more information.
“The new avenue USDOE (the Energy Department) is really seeking to travel is to leave renamed waste where it is forever. But, waste won’t stay where it is at Hanford,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who serves as executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a group that monitors the Hanford cleanup.