There is currently a proposal to send some of Hanford’s tank waste to New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project, a nuclear waste repository built into the salt domes. The WIPP project is only meant to store Transuranic Waste, called “TRU,” and that waste is primarily plutonium. I have some problems with this proposal. Once the re-classification wagon is hitched it makes it easier for other waste to get reclassified which is mostly in service of making cleanup and disposal cheaper, easier – and dirtier. This proposal was made with the idea that they could declare at least one success with tank farm waste, getting some waste moved off site permanently. All of the new tank leaks and the boondoggled Waste Treatment Plant are pushing out deadlines, increasing the cost of cleanup, and making Hanford’s most difficult cleanup challenge even harder.
This isn’t the first time waste reclassification has been on the table. The Department of Energy (DOE) has been sued in the recent past over this issue by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Yakama Indian Nation. In that case, a federal district court judge ruled that DOE did not have the legal authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste. However, the appeals court overturned that decision on the basis that the controversy was not yet ripe for adjudication because DOE had not taken enough steps to make the reclassification a reality.
Now the DOE has taken those steps by issuing a Federal Register notice in March that it intends to reclassify Hanford tank waste, which has historically been called high-level waste, as TRU.
Also, at Hanford DOE has already been attempting to create work-arounds for some waste definitions. For instance, waste that is contained within Hanford’s underground storage tanks is called high-level waste, however that same waste that has leaked out of the tanks is called waste incidental to reprocessing, with different rules and restrictions. This is also subject to legal challenge.
Transuranic waste (TRU) is subject to political distinctions as well. The classification Transuranic, or TRU was made in 1970 and required certain handling and disposal restrictions, namely disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico. Waste generated in the same way, with the same composition, created and disposed prior to 1970 is not considered TRU, and can be left in place. Long-term projects like Hanford cleanup bring with them temptations to take shortcuts to just “Git-er-done.” Waste that has known risks, that needs to be removed, treated and disposed so that it is isolated from humans and the environment should not be subject to short-cuts.
I was able to bring my perspective to New Mexico at the invitation of the Southwest Research and Information Center, which is concerned about the expansion of the WIPP project beyond its licensed capacity to only handle TRU waste, and specifically not high-level nuclear waste. There is an aggressive organizing effort underway there to prevent Hanford high-level waste from being accepted at WIPP.
Another issue is capacity. WIPP does not currently have space to accept Hanford’s tank waste, no matter what the label. WIPP can hold only so much Remote Handled waste, which is waste so radioactive that it has to be handled remotely, with no human getting close enough to get irradiated. WIPP is quickly running out of room for such wastes.
It is critical that we don’t lose sight of implications that seemingly minor policy changes can have on nuclear waste policy. The goal is safe and protective cleanup, it might not be easy but we don’t have a choice.
By: Tom Carpenter