High-Level Waste Reclassification

Columbia Riverkeeper works to create public spaces to raise awareness about pertinent issues at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

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.

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.

Source: Hanford Nuclear Site

The Issue: In April 2024, 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.

Status: 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.

Media Inquiries: Contact Communications & Marketing Director Liz Terhaar (liz@columbiariverkeeper.org).

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