After spending billions of dollars over several decades to remove radioactive waste leaking from a plant where nuclear bombs were made, the U.S. Department of Energy has come up with a new plan: leave it in the ground. The shuttered Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced plutonium for U.S. atomic weapons from World War II through the Cold War, is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site with about 56 million gallons of waste stored in leak-prone underground tanks in south-central Washington State. The Energy Department has proposed to effectively reclassify the sludge left in 16 nearly empty underground tanks from “high-level” to “low-level” radioactive waste. The re-classification would allow the department to fill the tanks with grout, cover them with an unspecified “surface barrier,” and leave them in place.
But environmental groups and others say the plan amounts to a semantic sleight of hand that will leave as much as 70,000 gallons of remaining nuclear sludge — some of which could be radioactive for millions of years — in the ground…
The cleanup operations at Hanford are projected to cost more than $100 billion, and the Energy Department has already spent more than $19 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. The reclassification could save the department billions of dollars. It would also open the door to doing the same for all 177 tanks on the sprawling 586-square-mile reservation.
The Columbia River borders the Hanford land for almost 50 miles and some of the tanks are as close as five miles (eight kilometers) to the river, the largest in the Pacific Northwest and the source of irrigation for agriculture and drinking water for downstream citiesions.
Opponents include the Yakama Nation, whose reservation is located 20 miles west of the Hanford site and that has treaty rights to the Chinook salmon that spawn in the Columbia River. The nation wrote in comments to the agency that leaving the waste in unstable shallow land is “simply bad policy.”
Excerpts from Ari Natter, Plan to Leave Buried Nuclear Bomb Waste Underground Draws Fire, Bloomberg, Nov. 29, 2018