WA, DOE agree to updated cleanup plan for Hanford Nuclear Reservation

May 3, 2023, 5:26 PM


The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility is seen at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. (Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images)

While both state and federal agencies could not discuss or reveal many details Tuesday, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the state of Washington reached an agreement for planning a cleanup of radioactive waste from the Hanford nuclear waste facility after nearly three years of negotiations.

The mediation agreement currently restricts both parties, alongside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from discussing the negotiations that took place, but it was confirmed that the 2024 Hanford site budget — $3 billion proposed by the Biden administration  — aligned with the conceptual agreement for the nuclear reservation site’s tank waste, according to the Tri-City Herald.

The agreement required more than 60 mediated sessions in order for a deal to take place.

How the Northwest contributed to the atomic bombs of WWII

DOE is preparing to start treatment next year after a court-enforced consent decree required it. It has been reported that some delays occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Treating and removing the high-level tank waste is required by 2033 from the same decree. The waste will reportedly be emptied into 27 newer double-shell tanks to await treatment.

DOE awarded the Hanford site contract, with an estimated value of up to $45 billion over a decade, to a newly formed limited liability company to deal with the cleanup, which plans to turn the radioactive waste into a solid glass form.

“This agreement is good news for Hanford workers, the Tri-Cities community, and all of Washington state,” said Sen. Patty Murray, president pro tempore of the U.S. “I have long held that the federal government has a moral and legal obligation to support Hanford workers and clean up the Hanford site. I’m glad there’s a conceptual agreement on tank waste between the state and the administration to make good on that commitment.”

According to The Associated Press, the Hanford site, located near Richland, produced approximately two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and now is the most contaminated radioactive waste site in the nation. A multi-billion dollar environmental cleanup has been underway for decades.

A second tank believed to be leaking waste was discovered in 2021 after the first was uncovered in 2013. Many more of the 149 single-walled storage tanks at the site are suspected of leaking. The latest tank confirmed of leaking, Tank B-109, held approximately 123,000 gallons of radioactive waste.

Signs of another nuclear waste storage tank leaking at Hanford

With contamination getting into the groundwater that moves toward the Columbia River — which is just five miles away from the site — the risk of contamination with highly toxic waste has developed into a significant concern.

“I am advised from the information from the federal government that we see no reason to believe there is any imminent threat of health to Washingtonians,” Gov. Jay Inslee said after a second tank was found leaking toxic material. “It has been a long-time concern of ours because there have been previous thousands of gallons of waste — I’m advised this is about 1,300 gallons that has been identified in this particular leak.”

Last year, in a ruling against Washington state, the U.S. Supreme Court claimed a 2018 law allowing for workers’ compensation for federal contract workers at the decommissioned nuclear facility was unconstitutional. The law would’ve made it easier for Hanford site workers to sue the federal government for compensation benefits over illnesses associated with the radioactive waste generated at the nuclear facility.

But Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson argued that last year’s ruling “had little practical impact” on Washington workers, as the law was updated in 2022 to more broadly apply to most workers at any nuclear waste facility rather than just federal contract workers at Hanford. The law now no longer discriminates against the federal government.

“Because the Legislature already fixed the issues the federal government raised, there is little practical impact in Washington as a result of this ruling,” Ferguson wrote in a prepared statement. “Hanford workers, and all others working with dangerous radioactive waste, remain protected. The federal government has not challenged this new law. If they do, we will defend these protections all the way back up to the Supreme Court again if we have to.”

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