Officials Weigh Costs Of Filling In Hanford Tanks, With Eye On Columbia River Impact | KNKX

Officials Weigh Costs Of Filling In Hanford Tanks, With Eye On Columbia River Impact

Oct 10, 2018
Originally published on October 10, 2018 12:08 pm

After nearly two decades of work, contractors at Hanford have finished cleaning out the first of 177 radioactive waste tanks. CREDIT: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

After nearly two decades of work, contractors at Hanford have finished cleaning out the first of 177 radioactive waste tanks. CREDIT: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Keeping the Columbia River safe is at the core of several public meetings scheduled for Seattle and Portland next week. It all has to do with decisions being made hundreds of miles away in the desert at Hanford. The question regulators are tacking: How do you keep a mostly-empty radioactive waste tank safe for hundreds, thousands even a million years?

At Hanford, there’s 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. It’s stored in aging underground tanks from WWII and the Cold War. All not far from the Columbia River.

These waste tanks are huge. Some of them could fit a three-story house inside. There are 177 tanks all-together. And most of them are single-shelled, or have a single hull.

Many of these tanks have leaked radioactive waste into the soil – at least a million gallons worth.

But with some, the federal government has been able to pretty much empty, transferring the waste into slightly sturdier tanks.

So now, the question is: How can the federal government close these emptied out tanks for the long haul? Like keep them safe for thousands of years?

Here’s the federal government’s plan: Fill up the emptied tanks with grout and then build a rain-proof cap over them to protect them from moisture. The idea is, if you keep the water away, the remaining waste will just sit there. And won’t move.

The only problem?

“The board is very concerned about the level of contamination that will remain on the site,” says Susan Leckband, who chairs the Hanford Advisory Board. The board is a group of stakeholders that watches over cleanup at the site and gives the federal and state governments advice.

Leckband says when the federal government cleans out those tanks, they aren’t that clean, really.

There will be about 70,000 gallons of waste left in just one group of tanks called the C Farm. The federal government wants to grout over that.

“And, we’re also concerned about the fact that we’re not sure that the grout they put in there will actually mix with the waste and become a solid, impenetrable waste form so it won’t leak into the water table,” Leckband said.

Oregon and Washington state officials are also worried. They say the federal government is looking at too narrow a slice of Hanford when it calculates its total chemical and radioactive waste risk to the Columbia River.

PUBLIC MEETINGS: There are several upcoming meetings in Seattle and Portland next week, Oct. 16 and 18, weighing whether or not the federal government should grout Hanford’s underground waste tanks. More info here.

The states say the feds aren’t counting all the other waste at Hanford. Like the stuff that leaked out of the tanks already – and other waste sites like pits where the government just used to pour radioactive liquids into the desert.

All of that waste has created plumes of contamination that continually move toward the aquifer and Columbia River. – what’s called “the total load.”

Other Tank Farms

Jeff Burright helps watch over Hanford cleanup. He’s a Nuclear Waste Remediation Specialist for Oregon Department of Energy. And the state is very invested in what happens at Hanford and to the Columbia.

“The concern is, you have things like the other tank farms that have leaked, you have numerous trenches around the site where waste was dumped over time and is migrating toward the aquifer,” Burright said.

“If you leave waste behind on site you are adding to that eventual burden on the groundwater under Hanford and ultimately the Columbia River.”

And there’s yet another issue: Grouting is a really permanent measure. It’s like concrete, and it’s likely those massive blocks would remain in place, maybe forever. Or for at least thousands of years. Hundreds of generations from now. That’s how long it would take for the radioactive waste to cool down some.

Burright says it’s really hard to plan for a million years of climate change, civilization change and things we just don’t know.

“There are the things we know, and then to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, there are the unknown, unknowns, that we need to make sure we’re managing over time,” Burright said.

This decision is important. What’s done at Hanford’s C Farm, might be the template for all the other tank farms there. On a scale of a million years, Burright says it’s the things we don’t know, we don’t know – the “unknown unknowns” – that could harm future generations that depend on the Columbia River.

PUBLIC MEETINGS: There are several upcoming meetings in Seattle and Portland next week, Oct. 16 and 18, weighing whether or not the federal government should grout Hanford’s underground waste tanks. More info here.

The U.S. Department of Energy released the following statement about this story: 

The Department of Energy, (DOE) is preparing for the closure of the C Tank Farm by releasing the “Draft Waste Incidental to Reprocessing Evaluation for Closure of Waste Management Area C at the Hanford Site” (Draft WIR Evaluation) for public comment.

The Draft WIR Evaluation assesses whether the tanks (from which waste has been retrieved), ancillary structures and their residual wastes at closure of Waste Management Area C are not high-level radioactive waste and may be managed as low-level radioactive waste. DOE is releasing the Draft WIR Evaluation for comments by States, Tribal Nations, and the public. The Department will host a public meeting in the mid-June timeframe to present information and address questions about the Draft WIR Evaluation.. Additionally, the Department is consulting with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on the Draft WIR Evaluation and has provided the Draft WIR Evaluation, the underlying performance assessment, and other technical basis documents to the NRC for review.

Following consideration of comments and NRC consultation, DOE anticipates issuing a final WIR Evaluation. Based on the final WIR Evaluation, DOE may potentially determine (in a WIR Determination) whether the tanks , ancillary structures and their residual waste at closure of WMA C are not high-level radioactive waste and may be managed as low-level radioactive waste.

DOE has a record of safely and successfully retrieving waste and closing underground waste tanks at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho. Achieving closure of Hanford’s C Tank Farm would be an important achievement in cleanup of legacy waste for the Hanford Site and the nation.

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