As a relatively new member of the Hanford Advisory Board, I have spent the past year observing and learning from my HAB peers. Much like the Hanford Site, the HAB is complex; it has its own culture, history and norms. Granted, these are precisely the traits that make the board unique, but I’ve needed some time to feel as though I could meaningfully contribute.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been completely silent. Much to my surprise, my first comment as a board member landed me in a local newspaper! I’ve also shared my views on improving public involvement and questioned whether I, as a Public-at-Large representative, was comfortable endorsing a letter that would have supported waste storage exploration in another state (a state that surely has citizens who did not want the waste in their communities).
In a moment of bravery, I accepted two Issue Manager opportunities with the Public Involvement and Communications Committee. My roles have been to develop a set of questions that all Hanford related public involvement surveys should ask, and assist with the development of a fact sheet on nuclear waste classification for the public. The first task was simple enough, but explaining how nuclear waste is classified was a serious challenge, and it is nowhere near completion.
It seems really straightforward: material either is or is not nuclear waste, right?
Nuclear waste classification is quite nuanced: in addition to Nuclear Regulatory Commission definitions, the Department of Energy classifies legacy waste according to a range of conditions that relate in part to historical factors. Moreover, HAB members who have worked on this issue for years, decades even, have their own arguments about how waste is and should be classified. Needless to say, it will take a group effort to develop a document that speaks to the many shades of nuclear waste classification, especially in the context of Hanford.
This relationship between highly technical issues and stakeholder viewpoints can be a difficult process to participate in, but it will ultimately pay off. The opportunity to spur a debate on how to make nuclear waste classification and storage more accessible and meaningful to the public is not only fulfilling, but also vital for improved community engagement. The discussion is timely, as the Tri-Party Agencies are holding public meetings on the proposed 300 Area Cleanup Plan, which determines methods and levels of cleanup in the area where nuclear fuel was manufactured. Large amounts of uranium and other toxic materials have seeped into the soil and groundwater, requiring extensive remediation. It is one of the most contaminated and hazardous areas of Hanford.
Without improved information resources, engagement on important issues, like whether and how much radioactive material will be permitted to enter the Columbia River, may be limited – to the detriment of the public and the environment.