Hanford’s Future Revised

Hanford Holistic Settlement Released:
Changes Raise Thousand-Year Questions

As Good as Glass? Not so Fast.

By Dan Serres, Advocacy Director

At the end of April, the U.S. Department of Energy (Energy), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the State of Washington released a settlement agreement regarding cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Site, the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. 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 and Cleanup Changes

The settlement is the product of “holistic” negotiations between the agencies to address a range of issues regarding Hanford, and Hanford’s tank waste is at the center of the agreement. The tank waste is a byproduct of a decades-long operation at Hanford to produce huge quantities of plutonium for nuclear weapons. 

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. 

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.

The proposed agreement has both negative and positive aspects, and we are still working to understand the implications of the agreement and proposed changes to cleanup. 

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, and for tank waste to be immobilized in grout rather than glass—a major departure from Washington’s “as good as glass” principle. And, 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 must be removed, treated, and disposed of to protect groundwater and the River.

Just as importantly, the agreement is not the product of public involvement or engagement with Tribes. Rather, it was negotiated for years behind closed doors. While the public will have input on the details of changes to the Tri-Party Agreement (the “TPA” is the legal agreement that steers cleanup by establishing dates for specific cleanup actions, or “milestones”), the underlying settlement between the state and federal agencies is not subject to public input or change. If this sounds both concerning and confusing to you, we agree.

The Public Deserves a Voice in What Happens at Hanford

We will be joining with other partners in the region to urge the TPA Agencies to extend their planned 60-day comment period and to hold public meetings throughout the region, including in times and places accessible to the people and communities impacted by Hanford’s pollution, including Tribal members, young people, and those who live downstream and downwind of Hanford. 

Currently, agencies plan to begin accepting public comments on May 30 with public meetings in July.

Take Action: Please sign our petition urging TPA agencies to extend the public comment period for changes to Hanford cleanup. They had several years to negotiate, and we need a few more months to think through what they decided.

What comes next:

Cleanup Continues, But on Whose Terms?

These are a few additional observations about the Settlement Agreement and proposed changes to cleanup in the Consent Decree and TPA.

  • Energy will “forebear” the use of a controversial change to the term “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.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • The agencies are also 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 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? What happens after 2040, when some conditions of the agreement are no longer binding?
  • The agreement would add 1 million gallons of additional storage capacity for Hanford’s tank waste. (Currently 56 million gallons of tank waste sits in single-shelled and double-shelled tanks, and at least one million gallons of high-level waste leaked into the ground beneath some of the tanks.) Accelerating the pace of removing tank waste from the environment, both from unsound tanks and from the soil beneath the tanks, will require more technology, time, and resources. Does the agreement adequately plan for this uncertainty?

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 agreement 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.

For now, we are asking for more time to study the implications of the agreement announced.