The thought of leaving relatively immobile radioactive waste at Hanford to dissipate over time is disconcerting. Yet considering the hefty price tag and the questionable results of the alternative, it appears to be the most sensible solution for now.
Officials with both the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency have studied the contaminated area around the former F Reactor and have agreed the most reasonable approach is to allow the waste, which is buried deeper than 15 feet underground, to decay naturally over 264 years. That is a scary and uncomfortably long time, but considering the waste is so far below the surface and not very mobile, this decision makes sense. The cost to treat it would be exorbitant and there is no guarantee treatment would be completely successful.
In addition, DOE and EPA officials considered actively treating the contaminated groundwater in the same area, but instead decided to allow the contamination to dissipate on its own. They estimate it will take 150 years for the water to reach drinkable standards if left alone. Again, that’s a long time to wait for clean water, but it is contaminated with radioactive strontium, which manages to still linger even after treatment. If the groundwater were treated with the technology we have today, it would be pumped up and cleaned before being injected back into the ground. This method was tried near Hanford’s N Reactor where even higher levels of strontium were found, and it did little to reduce the contamination there.
Also, the cost of actively treating the groundwater would be $177 million to $194 million, while letting it dissipate naturally and monitor it with wells and restricting its use would cost $36 million, according to DOE’s proposed plan. That’s a huge price difference, especially when the chances are good the strontium would still be found in the groundwater after treatment.
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The Hanford Advisory Board said it would prefer a proactive approach to cleaning up the area and appears unconvinced DOE will be able to continue to restrict people from the land decades into the future. The concerns are valid, and we appreciate the high standards they place on cleanup. We also understand the board does not want this wait-and-watch attitude setting a precedent for other projects at Hanford.
But in this case, two federal agencies have agreed to a cost-effective approach at this particular area of Hanford. The waste is not going anywhere and the price to treat it is excessive. While nobody likes the idea of allowing radioactive waste to remain untreated, letting nature handle it and restricting activity in the area is reasonable until better treatment options become available. For the time being, this is the most sensible plan.