By Shannon Dininny Associated Press
RICHLAND — The future of nuclear energy in the U.S. depends on whether this country can figure out how to treat and dispose of the waste that is created, a leader of a commission charged with reviewing U.S. nuclear waste policies said Thursday.
President Barack Obama appointed the Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to review U.S. nuclear waste policies following his fulfillment of a campaign promise to kill the proposed Yucca Mountain repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
It’s no simple task, and nowhere is the problem of nuclear waste more apparent than south-central Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic blast and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II.
At that time, the country had an immediate objective and lacked information about waste and the technology to handle it, said Lee Hamilton, commission co-chairman and former congressman from Indiana.
Today, Hanford is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
“Now we’ve run into a situation where the consequences are very severe,” he said. “It’s understandable that the people of this community would have deep concerns about a permanent repository. They’ve had a long and difficult experience at Hanford.”
The commission spent two days at Hanford, touring the site and hearing from local advocacy groups and American Indian tribes about the importance of cleanup.
Gov. Chris Gregoire reinforced that sentiment Thursday, stressing that the key to ridding Hanford of its most dangerous waste is a deep geologic repository to store it.
Washington and South Carolina have filed lawsuits to block the Energy Department from stopping the project, and a legal panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the agency lacked authority to block it. The Energy Department and Nevada officials have promised to appeal.
Commission co-chairman and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said that while those proceedings are important, the commission can’t know how or when they will be resolved. “Our task is to proceed with our mandate to make recommendations,” he said, considering “the broader aspect of what we do with waste we’ve generated.”
Gregoire said she supports an in-depth review of how the U.S. manages nuclear waste but that Yucca Mountain should not be permanently removed from consideration. Doing so would severely delay Hanford’s cleanup, potentially endangering the health and safety of 1 million people who live along the Columbia River downstream, she said.
“I don’t have any confidence that we’ll pick another site anytime soon, and even then, the process will take years,” Gregoire said. “Hanford cannot wait.”
Gregoire also stressed that any recommendations made by the committee must be based on science, rather than politics.
Republican U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, whose home sits across the Columbia River from Hanford, offered an even more blunt assessment in a statement. The Obama administration is putting off decisions about nuclear waste until after November elections, while trying to illegally shut down the repository, he said.
The fate of the Yucca Mountain project is seen as key for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s bid for a fifth Senate term. He opposes the repository.
Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray issued statements supporting the commission’s efforts. Murray also said she opposed removing Yucca Mountain from consideration and would fight any attempt to build a repository at Hanford.
Hanford was one of three finalists for a repository site before Congress chose Yucca Mountain.
Scowcroft repeatedly stressed that the committee’s mission is not to choose a repository site. He and Hamilton noted the tough job ahead.
“To hear people who’ve lived with this 20, 30 years and the intensity of their feelings,” Hamilton said, “translating these personal feelings into policy is a real challenge.”