In Focus: Stepping up to the plate at Hanford

John Williford

Over the years, a consensus has developed that the best option for management of nuclear waste is isolation in deep, geologic repositories. In the U.S., an early mix of potential geologic sites was identified, with most of the oldest geology being located east of the Rockies. For political reasons, Eastern sites were promptly dropped from consideration. By 1986, the potential sites had been reduced from nine to three for non-scientific reasons. Remaining sites were in Washington state, Texas and Nevada. The original plan was to focus attention on characterization of all three of these three sites, with selection of two for full development.

Due to funding, the three-site characterization effort was dropped. By fiat, for political reasons, Yucca Mountain was picked by President G.W. Bush as the sole site. Congress promptly wrote a law specifying that Yucca Mountain was the site for the National Nuclear Waste Repository.

Science subsequently followed, with failure of the Yucca Mountain site to meet the 1,000 year requirement of isolation from surface water. The finding of Chlorine-36 at the gallery levels from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests 50 years earlier was the sharp stake that should have killed this vampire: http://tinyurl.com/oahqg9u.

Following the principles of Occam’s Razor, this should have been the end of it. However, a cascade of efforts to gut criteria and/or to engineer around the failures of the site on scientific grounds, at a cost of billions of dollars, followed; including packaging of spent fuel bundles in exotic alloy casks, and the idea of roofing entire galleries with pure Titanium sometime in the next century.

As with too many other matters in the U.S., politics and litigation now replace science on legislation specifying Yucca Mountain and writing the law to exclude any rejection by the “host” state has been characterized as the “Screw Nevada Act.” The fact that Washington has joined litigation to force Nevada to stay on her back is not exactly a legitimate source of pride. It may be time to reboot and look again at the original nine candidate sites (now eight, if one removes the failed Yucca Mountain location).

Backing up to the final three in the earlier exercise, subtracting Yucca, we are left with sites in Texas and Washington, the latter being on the Federal Reservation at Hanford: Gable Mountain.

There is an internet site that makes a good case for shifting attention to Hanford, continuing a stream of financial benefit to the communities that has grown since the Manhattan Project and the Cold War through Federal funding of nuclear http://energizenw.com/enw-nuclear-waste/. This piece makes the point that we already have two-thirds of the country’s nuclear waste here, and have so far isolated it with success. Taking on another third, while developing secure fixation and isolation technology, would provide jobs and a continuing flow of billions of dollars into the Tri-Cities economy.

As the article indicates, there are opportunities for a 100-year interim storage activity, and eventually geopolitical changes should produce opportunities for work on reprocessing. This prospect would provide beneficial activity in parallel. If we have any wits, we should look ahead to replacing the uranium cycle with the thorium cycle, and establish a role for the Hanford site (perhaps with a rejuvenated FFTF) as a national center for development of thorium cycle power reactor technology, including a breeder role in fuel production.

As a more forward-looking approach to Hanford Tank Waste Vitrification, I think reorientation of the approach, abandoning chemical separation and increasing throughput to vitrify all the tank waste could vastly expedite and simplify the existing challenges. As it is, the glacial pace and unresolved issues of the current vitrification program multiply risks, and lead nowhere. Good quality glass, as stable as obsidian (140 million years) doesn’t need exotic canning, and should be able to safely stay at Hanford forever.

Let’s look again, first moving more quickly to immobilize the 56 million gallons of tank waste, and then move on to something productive and challenging in the way of new research for our community and the nation.