Our Voice: State should keep public informed about safety issues at Hanford

Hazardous waste from Hanford can be safely transported on public roads but that's not always happening on short hauls, according to a recent state report.

"The selection of non-compliant packages to transport mixed (radioactive and chemical) waste presents a risk to human health and the environment," said the summary of the report.

That's only known because a watchdog group leaked the report to the news media. The state hasn't had much to say to the public that's supposedly been put at risk.

The state officials only ratchet up anxieties by keeping mum on the results of the safety report it conducted on the shipments.

It took pressure from Hanford Challenge to bring these safety issues to light. Otherwise, no one would have even known an inspection had occurred.

The government should have been more forthcoming with its public safety report. Instead, the Department of Energy and the Washington State Department of Ecology have declined to discuss the inspection. Their silence does nothing to alleviate concerns about how the waste is being transported.

The report was obtained by Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group that monitors activities at Hanford. The document, which was signed by two state employees July 8 and 11, focused on whether the public and environment are adequately protected when waste is shipped from central Hanford to Perma-Fix Northwest, a treatment plant just off the nuclear reservation.

According to the report, about 12 miles of the route are on public roads. The shipments start at the Wye Barricade, where public access is denied, and then travel Route 4 before turning onto Battelle Boulevard in north Richland.

Pilot cars travel in front and back of the waste shipment truck. But the public has unrestricted access to two lanes in the opposite direction on Route 4 and the crossroads are open to the public, the report said.

It is estimated that from 2009 to 2012, about 2.3 million pounds of hazardous waste was transported from Hanford to Perma-Fix.

More information is still being gathered, and that's the reason DOE and state officials have said they aren't going to comment on the inspection report just yet.

That's not an adequate response.

The mere existence of the investigation should have been made public, even if the findings aren't complete. People also need to be told the results will be made public. The public shouldn't be kept in the dark.

The state looked at shipments March 22-23 and questioned whether appropriate shipping packages were used. The inspection report implies more precautions are needed, especially in how the waste is contained for shipment.

The state calculated radioactivity of the drums and determined they needed to be transported in more protective containers. The report said liquids were found in some packages when Perma-Fix opened them, and there was damp sludge outside the primary containment.

According to the inspection findings, the waste was shipped in Type A containers for radioactive materials, but the level of radioactivity found required Type B containers, which must meet more stringent Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements.

It's apparent the inspection was needed.

While it's encouraging to know the state is monitoring the transport of hazardous waste from Hanford, it's discomforting to find out the public is being kept in the dark about the process.

This is an issue that affects the safety and well being of people and the environment, and any inspection should be as transparent as possible.

Even if the investigation is ongoing, keeping silent is not the way to handle public safety issues. When it comes to public perceptions about nuclear hazards, the imagined risks that fill the information vacuum are typically far more frightening than the truth.