Nuclear waste problem could have been resolved long ago

March 5, 2013 

The imperative for federal lawmakers and scientists to find safe methods of storing high-level radioactive waste did not begin 10 days ago with the discovery that temporary storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are leaking.

The search for safe storage began 56 years ago. That we are still storing nuclear waste in metal containers whose useful life died about the time The Beatles invaded America, speaks volumes about the ineptitude of the U.S. government.

The nation’s first nuclear reactor to generate electricity began operation in 1951 at Arco, Idaho. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences recommended disposing of the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in geologically stable rock formations deep underground.

It took the Department of Energy until 1978 to identify Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the best place to bury nuclear waste – more than 70,000 metric tons had accumulated at 121 sites around the nation by the end of 2009.

But when Nevada Sen. Harry Reid ascended to Senate Majority Leader after the 2006 midterm elections, he promised to kill the project. President Barack Obama shamefully obliged Reid by shutting Yucca Mountain down in 2010, just when it was on the verge of accepting waste from sites such as Hanford.

That left 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste spread among 177 single-wall steel tanks, some of which were built in 1943 when the Hanford site was originally established to produce plutonium for weapons during the Cold War.

Since then, the old tanks have leaked about 1 million gallons of waste dangerous to the environment, which is now slowly making its way toward the Columbia River. While the Department of Energy attempted to fix that problem, the recent news that at least one tank is leaking up to 300 gallons of radioactive sludge per year indicates that enormous, perhaps catastrophic, problems are looming.

It should never have reached this point.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last summer that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had botched its responsibility to analyze the risks of leaks and fires at sites such as Hanford, if spent fuel and radioactive waste continued to be stored there.

Hanford stores two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear waste. Experts consider it the most contaminated site in the nation. The environmental cleanup now under way at the site is the largest ever undertaken in the United States.

Government records have proved that while Hanford was operational with nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium processors, it was spewing hazardous radioactive pollutants into the air, endangering people and the environment.

Now, the leftover waste is threatening us again, simply because of political opposition from the site designated as the best and safest site for storing the nation’s collective nuclear waste. Sen. Reid’s NIMBY, not in my backyard, approach to a national crisis is indicative of today’s political state of affairs.

Obama should direct the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to find a permanent repository for the waste from Hanford and other sites. If not Yucca Mountain, then where?

Sen. Reid should put aside his opposition to the only current solution or at least use his leadership to address short- and long-term fixes for the greater good.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with Rep. Denny Heck and the rest of the Washington and Oregon congressional delegations should be screaming outrage, and demanding action from Obama and this Congress.

We cannot wait another 56 years.

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