Hanford’s nuclear waste can’t wait another 70 years

The News TribuneFebruary 20, 2013 

Set a deadline far in the future. Add 25 years. Maybe 50.

That’s the sluggishness with which the federal government – thanks in part to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – has been dealing with the nation’s most radioactive nuclear waste. A truly scary amount of that waste is quietly seething in our own backyard, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

A new leak at Hanford demonstrates the folly of strangling the safest disposal option in sight – deep burial in dry Nevada – while letting high-level nuclear waste pile up near rivers around the country in stopgap storage containers.

Hanford hosts 56 million gallons of hot reactor byproducts in 177 steel-walled underground tanks, some dating to the heyday of Betty Grable. Collectively, they’ve leaked an estimated 1 million gallons of waste into the desert soil, creating radioactive plumes that are gradually headed for the Columbia River.

The Department of Energy put a stop to the big leaks years ago by pumping out liquids from the tanks, leaving crusty, gooey, toxic sludges inside. Water has been penetrating one of these supposedly “stabilized” tanks. The lyrically named T-111 has reportedly resumed leaking at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons a year.

This is a reminder that the nation’s largest concentration of nuclear waste is stored under insanely makeshift conditions. The oldest tanks, including T-111, were engineered to last 20 years. They were built in 1943 and 1944.

Even Hanford’s newer, double-walled tanks – built between the late 1960s and early 1980s – are slowly rotting in the ground. One sprang a leak last fall.

The contents of all these rusty buckets had been destined for the infinitely safer repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., whose design promises to hold public exposure to radiation to a tiny fraction of natural background levels for 1 million years. That project was headed for opening when Reid and an obliging Obama administration cut it out of the budget in 2010.

The chief prospect remaining for the decontamination of Hanford is a $12.3 billion plant that would “vitrify” the tank wastes into big glass cylinders ready for burial.

Work on the vitrification plant has been progressing at roughly the pace of the Tower of Babel. It is supposed to open in 2019, but then what? There’s no place to bury the cylinders.

The Energy Department took a quarter of a century to get Yucca Mountain so close to accepting Hanford’s most deadly waste. Now the whole process is being started from scratch. Democrats, especially from this state, should be making a much bigger stink about this raw political power play than they have been.

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