U.S. DOE To Change Classification of Hanford’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, State Officials Say Abandons Cleanup Obligations

The Trump Administration Thursday said it will change the definition of high-level waste stored at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and other nuclear waste sites across the country, “opening the door for the federal government to walk away from its obligation to clean up millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste at Hanford,” say Washington State officials.

Washington currently holds 60 percent of the nation’s high-level waste with 56 million gallons stored in 177 underground storage tanks at Hanford. Other waste is housed at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and the Idaho National Laboratory at Idaho Falls.

Hanford’s underground tank waste is the deadly legacy of a half-century of plutonium production for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Currently, all of that waste is classified as high-level. Plans for its treatment and disposal have been developed to isolate it from the environment until it is no longer dangerous.

The U.S. Department of Energy now seeks to reclassify a potentially large percentage of the waste as lower level waste.

The DOE sent a supplemental notice to the Federal Register Thursday outlining its interpretation of high-level radioactive waste (HLW).

“For decades, DOE has managed nearly all reprocessing waste streams as HLW regardless of radioactivity. This one- size-fits-all approach has led to decades of delay, costs billions of dollars, and left the waste trapped in DOE facilities in the states of South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho without a permanent disposal solution,” said DOE.

“Recognizing this failure, this Administration is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower level waste currently housed in three states,” said U.S. Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar.

“DOE is going to analyze each waste stream and manage it in accordance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, with the goal of getting the lower-level waste out of these states without sacrificing public safety.”

Going forward, DOE’s interpretation is that “reprocessing waste streams are defined by their characteristics, not just how they were made. With this new interpretation, DOE will pursue new avenues for the responsible and safe treatment and removal of lower level waste that has been languishing at DOE sites, while protecting the environment and the health and safety of local communities.”

This reclassification of dangerous radioactive waste did not sit well with Washington State officials. They say it opens the door to the federal government walking away from its obligation to cleanup waste from nuclear weapons production dating back to World War II and the Cold War.

“This action by the Department of Energy violates federal law and allows for a complete reversal of how tank waste can be treated and stored at the Hanford site. Washington state has worked for decades with the Department of Energy to ensure that high-level waste would be safely treated if it were to remain at the Hanford site,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson released a statement condemning the administration’s actions.

“The Trump Administration is showing disdain and disregard for state authority with these actions. Washington will not be sidelined in our efforts to clean up Hanford and protect the Columbia River and the health and safety of our state and our people.

“By taking this action, the administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement. We will consider all options to stop this reckless and dangerous action.”

A collaborative approach to redefining waste proposed by the Washington State Department of Ecology was rejected by the Department of Energy. The state’s proposal would have met the need of federal agencies, the state and the community, say state officials.

This week, Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon sent a letter to DOE Undersecretary Dabbar asking the department to remain at the negotiating table to find a mutually acceptable solution, rather than issuing a new waste definition that will effectively terminate negotiations.

In January Washington State filed comments opposing the plan to “reinterpret” the classification of Hanford’s 56 million gallons of waste stored in underground tanks.

“This is an attempt by the federal government to grant themselves the unilateral authority to leave high level, radioactive waste in the ground at Hanford. This dangerous idea will only serve to silence the voices of tribal leaders, Hanford workers, public safety officials, and surrounding communities in these important conversations,” Inslee said. “This is unacceptable, and we will not stand by while this administration plans to abandon its responsibility to clean up their mess.”

A lower classification would “would allow treatment and disposal options that would not guarantee long-term protection for local communities, groundwater and the Columbia River,” said the state in a January press release.

“Washington will not tolerate shortcuts in the federal government’s cleanup of Hanford,” Attorney General Ferguson said. “Unilaterally re-classifying high-level waste based on criteria not found in statute, and without consultation with other regulators and states, is dangerous and wrong. My office will ensure the federal government honors its cleanup obligations.”

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