A radiation warning sign along a road near the Hanford Site in Washington state, on Aug. 10, 2022. Hanford, the largest and most contaminated of all American nuclear weapons production sites, is too polluted to ever be returned to public use. Cleanup efforts are now at an inflection point. (Mason Trinca / New York Times file photo)

A radiation warning sign along a road near the Hanford Site in Washington state, on Aug. 10, 2022. Hanford, the largest and most contaminated of all American nuclear weapons production sites, is too polluted to ever be returned to public use. Cleanup efforts are now at an inflection point. (Mason Trinca / New York Times file photo)

Editorial: Latest Hanford cleanup plan must be scrutinized

A new plan for treating radioactive wastes offers a quicker path, but some groups have questions.

By The Herald Editorial Board

There are busted budgets and over-promised deadlines. Then there is the Hanford cleanup.

Recent projections for cost and completion of the task of cleaning up radioactive and toxic wastes at the nuclear facility in southwest Washington now has brought state and federal agencies together, following four years of negotiation, to issue a draft of an amended cleanup plan with the hope of speeding up the processing of some wastes, in time to avoid the greatest environmental harm from the radioactive material already leaking from aging tanks.

But before that plan moves forward, more clarity on the plan and public consensus on the best path forward will be be necessary.

History and legacy: Located northwest of Washington’s Tri-Cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick and their population of 311,000 people, the 580 square-mile federal nuclear reservation was prominent in the birth of the nuclear age and in winning World War II and defending America through the Cold War. Its facilities and workers produced nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, including that of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.

While plutonium production there ceased in 1987, its legacy has left some 56 million gallons of both watery liquids and a thick sludge of low- and high-level radioactive waste stored in nearly 180 underground tanks on the reservation, some single-walled and prone to leaks and some of which have already leaked radioactive and toxic chemical materials into the ground beneath them.

Hanford is considered the largest and most contaminated nuclear site in the nation. While most of the tanks are located miles from the Columbia River, Hanford tanks have leaked an estimated 4 million liters of wastes. Among other known spills is one beneath the Hanford 324 Building, just 1,000 feet from the Northwest’s largest river, which provides drinking water, irrigation, hydropower and more to Washington’s and Oregon’s cities, towns, Indigenous tribes, farms, wildlife and recreation.

Through a glass darkly: Since the 1990s, the plan for treatment and long-term storage of the waste — a process called vitrification — was to pump it from the aging tanks, separate the low- and high-level wastes, lock the wastes in molten glass and move it to long-term storage; very long-term, considering the waste will remain radioactive for 10,000 years. Low-level wastes could remain at Hanford and high-level wastes shipped elsewhere in the country, potentially to a repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

But construction of the facilities for separating, processing and encasing the waste in glass have blown past deadlines and budgets, according to past and recent coverage by The Tri-City Herald, Crosscut, The New York Times and other sources.

Construction of a vitrification plant started in 2000, with an estimated cost of $4.3 billion and originally scheduled for completion in 2009. Among the budget-busters was $4 billion wasted on a chemical treatment plant that was abandoned in 2012 because it was found riddled with safety defects. As of the summer of 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy had spent $13 billion with estimates that completion of the first of three planned plants could cost between $33 billion and $42 billion.

The first vitrification plant is now scheduled to begin encasing waste in glass by next summer. Hanford’s scheduled target for vitrifying all wastes is 2052, though Crosscut reported this week the U.S. Energy Department has moved its internal target to 2069. Total cost to treat and find a final resting place for all waste is now pegged at $528 billion. The U.S. Government Accountability Office predicts a range between $300 billion and $640 billion.

The grout route: Following four-years of closed-door talks, federal and state government agencies have released a tentative plan that, instead of vitrification, would treat some of the low- and high-level wastes by solidifying them with a process called grouting that mixes them with a type of cement.

“This agreement will get more tank waste retrieved, treated and disposed of on schedule and gives us a roadmap for Hanford cleanup through 2040 and beyond,” said Laura Watson, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology, in a news release Monday.

Before the plan is approved by a federal judge, the agencies are expected to offer public hearings on the proposal at locations in Washington and Oregon and launch a 60-day public comment period at the end of this month.

While some have expressed hopes that treating at least some of the waste by grouting it could treat more of it sooner and more affordably — a consideration that grows in importance with every liter leaked from a tank — there are concerns for how the process compares to vitrification in terms of its effectiveness in preventing further contamination and for how long.

Grout doubts: Hanford Challenge, a Hanford watchdog with ties to Indigenous tribes in both states and based in Seattle, has its doubts and questions. While not ruling out use of the grouting technology, neither does the advocacy group, in a paper from last year, endorse the proposal. Answers will be necessary as to which specific wastes with be treated and to what level of safety requirements, what the relative costs and timelines will be for both grouting and vitrification, how wastes will be classified and where treated wastes will ultimately be stored for thousands of years and under what protections for future generations, it says.

“This could end up being an expensive, time-consuming process — not the fast and cheap solution that is being sold,” the report reads. “Finally, grouting radioactive tank waste does not provide ‘as-good-as-glass’ long-term protection of human health and the environment because radionuclides do not remain immobilized in grout over time and can leach out into the environment. Vitrification is still the best option.”

However, grouting may offer the quickest opportunity for treatment of wastes now languishing in the oldest and most leak-prone tanks. It could allow additional time for further treatment of the grouted wastes without gambling on the integrity of the tanks.

Given the past 40-plus years of cleanup headaches, Hanford Challenge and other critics of the interminably slow and stunningly costly cleanup of the Hanford reservation are justified in their doubts.

Now that federal and state officials have proposed a plan of action, they must come forward with answers to those doubts and concerns and fairly consider the public’s response. And the public should not hesitate to weigh in on a matter of immense concern for themselves and the next 500 generations.

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