Four ways to get rid of nuclear waste

As Hanford tanks keep leaking and nuclear sites keep generating radioactive waste, scientists keep wondering where to stash it.
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Hanford's B Reactor

As Hanford tanks keep leaking and nuclear sites keep generating radioactive waste, scientists keep wondering where to stash it.

What will last 24,000 years?

Surely not the new 520 floating bridge, or the new Sonics arena — if it's ever built. Grand Coulee dam? Forget it. Ditto downtown Seattle and, alas, probably the Cascade glaciers.

But the waste created by some 45 years of plutonium production at Hanford, and power production at nuclear plants all over the United States, will stay dangerously radioactive for at least that long.

The late Alvin M. Weinberg, who as a young man worked on the Manhattan Project and later headed Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, once said that our commitment to store plutonium waste beyond its 24,000-year half life had no parallel in recent human history — unless, perhaps, you count Hitler's instruction to his architect, Albert Speer, to design buildings that would last throughout the reign of the Thousand Year Reich.

At Hanford, of course, the high-level waste from mankind's first plutonium factory was originally dumped into single-walled steel tanks. Leaks were first detected in the late 1950s. Starting in 1964, waste was dumped into double-walled tanks.

Plutonium production at Hanford ended in 1987, plutonium processing three years later. Under a 1989 agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology , the U.S. Department of Energy has committed to cleaning out the tanks and encasing the wastes in glass. The Waste Treatment Plant — aka the vitrification plant — at Hanford is already well behind its original schedule and well above its original budget. In early June, the feds told the state that they'd miss two significant cleanup deadlines. Some people doubt the vit plant will ever be finished or, if it is, that it will ever perform as expected.

In the meantime, the federal government has turned its back on the long-planned nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, which is where everyone expected the vitrified waste from Hanford — and the waste now glowing blue in pools at the nation's nuclear reactors — to wind up. A Blue Ribbon Commission charged with proposing alternatives to Yucca concluded that somehow, at some future date, the waste should go to some kind of repository in some state that was eager to have it. While virtually everyone assumed that under the 1989 agreement, the feds would ship Hanford wastes out of Washington, that was not an explicit commitment, so for the foreseeable future, that waste isn't going anywhere.

And neither is the waste stored at the nation's other nuclear plants.

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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.