Hanford Holistic Settlement Released

Changes Raise Thousand-Year Questions

June 27, 2024 
By Dan Serres, Advocacy Director

On May 30, the U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington Department of Ecology (Tri-Party Agreement agencies) announced a set of public meetings and opened the 60-day public comment period regarding changes to the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) resulting from a “holistic” settlement agreement (the settlement) between the agencies. 

The TPA establishes the legally binding roadmap for cleanup at Hanford through a series of dates (“milestones”) by which specific cleanup actions or plans must be completed. The agencies are accepting comments on changes proposed as a result of the major settlement announced by the TPA agencies on April 30, 2024.

The Settlement and Changes to TPA: What’s At Stake?

The TPA agencies’ so-called “holistic” settlement agreement and accompanying TPA milestone changes raise thousand year questions. The proposed changes to cleanup will alter treatment, storage, and disposal plans for highly toxic and radioactive waste currently stored in aging tanks and in soil beneath tanks.

The settlement is the result of “holistic” negotiations between the agencies to address a range of issues regarding Hanford. The center of the agreement? Hanford’s tank waste— a byproduct of a decades-long military operation at Hanford, which produced two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for nuclear weapons. The agreement did not involve Tribal engagement nor public involvement. Rather, it was negotiated for almost four years behind closed doors. 

While the public will have input on the details of changes to the TPA milestones, the underlying settlement between the state and federal agencies is not subject to public input or change.

Does this sound confusing? That’s because it is. 

The bottom line is this: we are being asked to comment on major potential changes to the Hanford cleanup, including a new proposal for high-level tank waste treatment, the shipment of tank waste to other communities in Utah and Texas, and radioactive waste shipments through Oregon and Washington communities. We are also being asked to accept the principle that it is okay to turn tank waste into grout rather than glass, a major departure from Washington’s “as good as glass” principle for immobilizing highly radioactive waste. In fact, Energy proposes to select an alternative for grouting tank waste by the end of 2024.

The Changes, As Good as Glass? Not So Fast.

The proposed changes to Hanford cleanup agreements include:

  • Following existing plans for treating some of Hanford’s tank waste through vitrification;
  • Bypassing a failed pretreatment plan for some of the most radioactive tank high-activity waste, the agencies now propose to pretreat and directly feed tank waste to a new facility to vitrify high-level waste;
  • Building a vault storage system and second effluent management facility to support treating high-level waste;
  • Retrieving tank waste by emptying 22 tanks in Hanford’s 200 West Area by 2040 for the purpose of grouting (not vitrifying) the low activity portion of the waste for offsite disposal. This is a significant change for Hanford and a departure from the “as good as glass” standard for immobilizing tank waste;
  • Designing and building of 1 million gallons of additional tank waste storage capacity, also a significant change in cleanup in response to long-running demands from states, Tribes, and others who have called for additional storage to contain leak-prone tank waste;
  • Evaluating and developing new technologies for retrieving waste from tanks, an acknowledgment that emptying tanks still poses significant challenges in Hanford’s Central Plateau.

High Stakes, High-level Waste

Tank waste, which comes in the form of radioactive liquid, sludge, and saltcake (a salty crust) poses a long-lived threat to the Columbia River because the radioactive and toxic contamination it contains could travel through soil and groundwater to the River.

Hanford’s tank waste comes from irradiated nuclear fuel, which is considered high-level waste under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. 

Right now, Ecology continues to acknowledge that glass is a preferable waste form for immobilizing high-level nuclear waste and tank waste. On its web page, Ecology asks whether it is appropriate to have a lower standard for some tank waste.

Below is a screenshot from Ecology’s web page on May 28, 2024. 

Ecology’s website is careful to state that grout is an unacceptable form of waste for storage at Hanford. Yet, the TPA agencies now propose to grout millions of gallons of tank waste, with Ecology’s blessing. Here’s the reasoning: the grouted waste will go somewhere else, such as Clive, Utah or Andrews, Texas.

This Raises Concerns and Questions

Is this ethical? Is it right to create a lesser form of immobilized tank waste, a form that will not last the test of time? If exposed to natural elements or geologic forces, grout will more readily release radiation and toxic chemicals into the environment than glass. Something that Ecology has readily admitted. Testing at Hanford has only successfully grouted three gallons of tank waste, a far cry from the 56 million gallons left in the tanks. This test, known as the Test Bed Initiative is not even complete and the TPA agencies have already agreed to settle on grout. 

Is it reasonable to conclude that because grout can be moved more quickly to a geologic location less exposed to surface water that’s the appropriate path for tank waste disposal? Are the communities in the path of the waste informed about the risk of the radioactive waste? Did the communities who will receive this waste provide informed consent? Did Tribal Nations? We thought oil by rail was a bad idea, now we have to contend with nuclear waste by rail. 

To Grout or Not to Grout? That is the Question.

The TPA agencies acknowledge an important truth: grouted tank waste should not remain next to the Columbia River, and tank waste should be removed from Hanford. This is profoundly important to the people who rely on the Columbia River Basin, including the Tribes who rely on Hanford and whose Treaty-reserved rights are badly harmed and curtailed by the contamination left at Hanford by the U.S. government.

Contaminated groundwater from Hanford currently reaches the Columbia River, and the problem could continue and potentially worsen if tank waste retrieval, treatment, and storage is unsuccessful. The contamination in Hanford’s Central Plateau, where the tanks are located, will last for millions of years and pose a risk to groundwater and the people who would use it—a harmful poison pill that will take generations to address. 

While the federal government agreed not to use a disputed, weakened definition of high-level waste at Hanford, the agreement leaves the door wide open for tank waste to be reclassified to low-level waste, and for tank waste to be immobilized in grout rather than glass—a major departure from Washington’s “as good as glass” principle.

In the settlement, Energy agrees to “forebear” using its redefinition of high-level waste. During the Trump administration, the federal government altered the definition of high-level waste to make it easier and cheaper to handle waste that comes from irradiated nuclear fuel. The State of Washington objected, along with Columbia Riverkeeper and many others. We are glad that Energy is agreeing not to use the new, flawed high-level waste definition at Hanford, at least for the time being. This seems like a good thing. By definition, “forebear” means to “hold oneself back from especially with effort” (thank you Miriam-Webster’s Dictionary), but what isn’t so promising is that Energy could apply with redefinition at any time, with only notice to Ecology and it’s unclear how much notice the settlement requires. 

While agreeing to refrain from using this weaker definition, Energy will still pursue reclassifying waste through a separate legal process, known as the “Waste Incidental to Reprocessing,” or “WIR”, process. What public processes will determine how much waste gets reclassified, and how will the agencies evaluate the cumulative impacts of any tank waste left in Hanford tanks or soil in light of changes being proposed?

From our viewpoint, Energy should not only “forbear” use of an illegal definition of high-level waste. Rather, Energy should abandon its use entirely and treat high-level waste according to the requirements of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Energy should not presume to have the authority to wish away high-level waste, and the Biden Administration should immediately and permanently withdraw the interpretative rule that weakened standards for high-level waste disposal all across the U.S. At the very least, Energy’s commitment not to use the disputed high-level waste definition should be ironclad at Hanford. It’s not enough to forbear something that is abjectly wrong, unethical, and injurious to the Columbia River. Energy should apologize for its inappropriate approach to handling high-level waste and agree to abide by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, to abide by the law. We remain concerned that the overall approach of grouting tank waste, capping large areas and leaving tank waste in the soil at Hanford will cause groundwater contamination.

What are our Ethical Responsibilities when it Comes to Nuclear Waste?

As part of the settlement, TPA agencies are agreeing to remove waste from tanks for the purpose of grouting it and shipping it away from Hanford. This is a tremendously important decision for the watersheds in the path of waste shipments, near the areas where the waste would be treated, and the communities who would be impacted by the permanent shallow disposal of Hanford’s tank waste. 

Are the communities in the path of the waste informed about the risks, and have they been engaged in the process of deciding how it will be shipped and disposed of? Have the Tribal Nation’s consented? What happens after 2040, when some conditions of the agreement are no longer binding?

Additionally, the communities impacted by the settlement must be offered a full analysis of the implications of decisions that may be made as soon as the end of 2024. TPA agencies are committing to a new path that could involve on-site grouting facilities to process tank waste, off-site grout facilities, and tank waste transportation through dozens of communities by the end of 2024. All of this would unfold while tank waste resides at Hanford and possibly Utah and Texas in the meantime, posing risks to people and the environment—without an appropriate environmental analysis to match the settlement reached, the agencies would be putting the radioactive cart before the horse.

We are encouraged to see that Energy will add new tank space to handle tank waste. Although the agreement proposes to build up to 1 million gallons of new storage to manage high-level waste, the agencies still have not come to full agreement about how much waste within, near and below tanks must be removed, treated, and disposed of to protect groundwater and the River. Will one million gallons be enough? We do not have adequate information to understand why this threshold has been set, and it seems to us that a state and federal environmental analysis is necessary to evaluate the impact of inadequate tank storage in worst-case scenarios, plus the risk of creating default interim storage. 

These are complicated, massive issues, with huge consequences for Hanford’s groundwater. And these are only a subset of Hanford’s problems.

The Public Deserves a Voice in What Happens at Hanford: Take Action Today!

There is a bigger picture at Hanford. For thousands of years to come, the radioactive waste generated by the U.S. government for the purpose of arming nuclear weapons will pose a risk to the environment. The settlement and changes announced address only a portion of Hanford’s contamination problem, the tank waste. Additional, major issues at Hanford—including lethally radioactive soil pollution less than 1000 feet from the Columbia at the 324 Building, strontium-90 pollution seeping into the Columbia River near the N Reactor, or a radioactive iodine-129 groundwater plume that extends for over 20 square miles—are still in need of solutions and decisions. 

We will continue to advocate for a cleanup that immobilizes the waste as durably and safely as possible, protecting the Columbia River and the people who depend on it.

This product is funded through a Public Participation Grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology.

scenic photo of the Hanford area

Hanford’s future is on the line.

Learn more about Hanford’s history, how Hanford cleanup impacts our communities, and how you can get involved.