The 20-year war over Hanford clean-up

So much nuclear waste to dispose of and so many barriers – technical, political, and legal. Here's an update on where things stand at the federal reservation in Washington. The solutions – glassification of radioactive waste, fast-reactor processing of spent nuclear fuel, and shipment to permanent burial in Nevada – are all encountering hurdles to progress.
Crosscut archive image.

The vitrification plant at the Hanford Site in Washington, under construction. (Bechtel)

So much nuclear waste to dispose of and so many barriers – technical, political, and legal. Here's an update on where things stand at the federal reservation in Washington. The solutions – glassification of radioactive waste, fast-reactor processing of spent nuclear fuel, and shipment to permanent burial in Nevada – are all encountering hurdles to progress.

Late last month, after a 20-month hiatus, Bechtel construction crews resumed work on the huge vitrification plant at the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington with a 350-yard concrete pour. No one outside the nearby Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco paid much attention. That's bizarre. Not only is Hanford the most contaminated nuclear-waste site in the hemisphere, if not the world, it's the Pacific Northwest's main claim to historic significance. Forget Lewis and Clark. Hanford is the site of the first plutonium factory in human history - and history's first big producer of high-level nuclear waste.

The late physicist Alvin Weinberg, who worked on the Manhattan Project as a young man and later ran the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, once said that our commitment to store plutonium waste for its 10,000-year half life was unlike anything in recent human history, except, perhaps, Hitler's instruction to his architect, Albert Speer, to design buildings that would last throughout the reign of the Thousand Year Reich.

We blundered somewhat unthinkingly into that commitment at Hanford during World War II. More than half a century later, we're still coming to grips with it.

The Hanford "vit plant" will mix radioactive waste with borosilicate glass, which will in theory be shipped to the national nuclear waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. (Plans for the Yucca Mountain site received another potential setback last month when scientists discovered that an earthquake fault ran under an area in which plant designers had planned to pour concrete pads for the temporary storage of high-level radioactive waste before it is entombed in tunnels deep within the mountain.)

The federal Department of Energy agreed to build the vit plant in an amendment to the Tri-Party Agreement it signed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology back in 1989. Under the terms of the Tri-Party Agreement, the plant should be up and running by 2011. It won't be. Some observers aren't sure it will ever turn radioactive waste into glass.

The delay clearly violates the Tri-Party Agreement. The state is negotiating with the feds about what happens next. If the feds propose more action on some other significant front, the state might back off. If the feds don't, the state might sue. Either way, that vit plant won't be completed on schedule.

"What is amazing to me," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said in March, "is that DOE has now been trying to clean up the nuclear waste and environmental contamination for half as long as the site was actually in operation – more than 20 years – with no end in sight. We are now coming up on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Tri-Party Agreement between DOE, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that was supposed to set specific, enforceable milestones for the clean-up.

"And where are we?" Wyden asked rhetorically. In addition to the delays and cost overruns, "the plan still leaves no solution for more than half of the so-called low-activity waste that is supposed to be removed from the tanks and which also has to be vitrified. There's still no plan for dealing with the waste that has leaked out of the tanks. There's still no plan for dealing with strontium and cesium capsules that have been retrieved from all over the country."

The Hanford vitrification plant will be the world's largest. No other plant has handled so much waste. None has handled waste contaminated by such a wide and poorly understood assortment of elements.

The nature of the waste casts doubt over the whole enterprise. The American Chemical Society's Environmental Science and Technology journal reported in 2002:

Hanford's waste is especially problematic because much of it has been only partially characterized, leaving many of its constituents unidentified. ... Cyanide, nitrate, and chromium compounds ... lurk in the tanks along with an alphabet soup of radioisotopes. In fact, Hanford waste now contains every element in the periodic table, says Pacific Northwest National Laboratories chemist John Vienna. ... The vitrification processes being used to treat Hanford's radioactive waste have tweaked [the traditional glassmaking] formula because ... many of the elements and compounds in the waste can interfere with glassmaking. For example, chromium, ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium can precipitate out of the glass melt and short-circuit the melter electrodes. Chromium, phosphorus oxide, and sodium sulfate dissolve poorly in borosilicate glass, sometimes forming refractory crystalline phases that can corrode the melter lining, clog the outflow of the glass melt to the canisters, and compromise the homogeneity and chemical durability of the finished product.

Thomas Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project suggests that the plant may never be completed. "I have questions whether the plant is going to work at all," he says, much less by the current deadline. Among other things, he points to the recent discovery of two- or three-times-higher than anticipated levels of aluminum and other metals that might create flaws in the borosilicate glass, which he said has touched off "a scramble to redesign."

The recently-ended delay stemmed from the discovery that the plant had not been designed to withstand plausible earthquake risks. The Oregon Department of Energy explained last year that "[c]onstruction on major portions of the vitrification plant complex was slowed in late 2004, when it was determined that seismic requirements for the design had been underestimated by about 40 percent. That forced a delay to evaluate the construction work that had already been completed, and to review and revise engineering designs for the remainder of the construction."

Although the problems posed by the radioactive waste already at Hanford are far from solved, the federal government has been eager to ship more there. Hanford is one of 11 sites that the Department of Energy is considering for a fast reactor that would transmute transuranic elements recovered from spent reactor fuel that is currently stored at reactors all over the country. (The Idaho National Laboratory and Atomic City, Idaho, are two others.) The Bush administration is touting fast reactors as a way to both produce power and consume some radioactive waste that will otherwise have to be stored at the nation's still-nonexistent waste repository.

Fast reactor development is the centerpiece of the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to which France, England, Japan, and other nations have already signed on. Is Hanford going to be a center of fast reactor development? Is any place? Don't hold your breath. Some people worry that a fast reactor in the Tri-Cities will draw spent nuclear fuel from far and near, but Thomas Cochran, a Natural Resource Defense Council nuclear expert, says flatly "it won't work." Sure, all those other nations have signed up, he concedes, but "it's a fraud" because none of them has put up any money.

Economically, fast reactors are losers, Cochran says. People have a lot of experience operating them. The reactors are complicated and expensive. The economics of nuclear power in the U.S. may look better than they once did - for the first time in more than 30 years, someone actually wants to build a new nuclear plant – but the economics of fast reactors do not.

Most Washington residents would not welcome more waste shipped in for other reason. In 2004, voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 297, which would prevent the feds from shipping any more mixed waste - that is, conventional hazardous waste mixed with radioactive substances - to Hanford until the mixed waste already spilled had been cleaned up. The U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington quickly ruled the state ballot measure unconstitutional. The state has appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hasn't yet established a schedule.

The district court found, among other things, that the initiative violated the constitution by infringing on the federal government's turf (regulating the disposal of nuclear waste) and burdening interstate commerce (keeping out new mixed nuclear and hazardous waste shipped from other states until the government cleans up the accidental spills of waste already here). The state argues to the 9th Circuit that's not so: Under federal and state law, Washington already has authority to regulate hazardous waste, and the initiative doesn't add to that authority. ("For decades, the Hanford facility has been storing some 53 million gallons of hazardous waste in violation of [the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] and state law.")

The state concedes that the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) gives the federal government authority to regulate the storage and disposal of nuclear waste but argues that the AEA gives the feds no authority over waste that has leaked into the environment. ("The Supreme Court has defined the AEA ... as regulating the 'production, possession, and use' of [radioactive] material. Nothing in the AEA ... addresses the cleanup of released radioactive material. Such material is no longer in anyone's 'production, possession and use,' having been dispersed to the environment and potentially migrating for miles beyond a nuclear facility.")

Washington also argues that the initiative doesn't discriminate against off-site waste shipped from other states, so under the Supreme Court's Pike doctrine (a 1970 ruling that involved cantaloupes grown in Arizona), the court should have balanced the trivial burden on interstate commerce against the state's substantial interest in protecting the health and safety of citizens.

In addition, it maintains that the initiative would have no immediate effect; under a settlement agreement in another case, the feds are already enjoined from sending more mixed waste to Hanford until they complete an elaborate environmental impact statement. And the initiative does not place any novel burden on the Hanford operation. It "[s]imply does not allow a contaminated, noncompliant [hazardous waste storage] facility to accept off-site wastes until the facility has cleaned up its existing mess."

The Tri-City Industrial Development Council, and Fluor Hanford, which has the waste management contract, intervened in the I-297 case on the Department of Energy's behalf. For them, more waste equals more jobs and more money.

"A lot of people think it's just a jobs program for Eastern Washington," Carpenter says. He won't comment on that. But he says that whatever its origins, the plant is needed. Old single-walled tanks built during and soon after World War II have already failed, newer double-walled tanks are starting to go, radioactive wastes have already leaked into the soil and percolated down into groundwater. "[A]pproximately 170 square miles of groundwater - an area that would cover much of Los Angeles - is contaminated," the state notes in a brief to the 9th Circuit.

"One of the biggest concerns and unknowns is the fate of the wastes once they have leaked from the tanks," the Oregon Department of Energy has observed. "What we do know is this - in November 1997, DOE found that waste from leaks in five tank farms had reached groundwater. Two months later, it was determined that waste from three other tank farms had also reached the groundwater. With more tank leaks, more waste will get into the groundwater. And that means more waste will eventually reach the Columbia River. We don't know when this will occur."

Under the circumstances, "we need a vit plant," Carpenter says.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.