Cantwell questions DOE nominees about Hanford waste disposal

Source: Tri-City Herald

Work at the Hanford vitrification plant needs to move forward on a path that is certain, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at a confirmation hearing Tuesday for three proposed Department of Energy officials.

She sees ideas proposed at Hanford only to have new officials come to the realization that they will not work after large amounts of money have been spent, she said at the hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She is the ranking member of the committee.

“We do have leaky tanks and we need to get them cleaned up,” Cantwell said.

Much of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks is waiting for treatment at the Hanford vitrification plant, which is years away from the start of even limited operation.

Treating waste for disposal is important, said Victoria Baecher Wassmer, nominated as the DOE undersecretary for management and performance.

She has had high-level briefings and will be learning more details on the proposed phased approach to the start of vitrification plant operations. Treating some of the Hanford waste storage tank’s low-activity radioactive waste for disposal while technical issues are addressed related to high-level radioactive waste has been proposed.

Some forms of nuclear defense waste do not yet have viable disposition paths, Cantwell said.

Cherry Murray, nominated to be the director of the DOE Office of Science, serves on the Congressional Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories. The commission has noted that with the high cost of DOE environmental cleanup, more science is needed, Murray told Cantwell.

“Science really is the underpinning of every technology,” Murray said.

The third DOE nominee at the hearing was John Kotek, formerly the staff director to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He is nominated to be the DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

Kotek said that DOE is in the process of developing a plan for a separate national repository for high-level radioactive defense waste, such as that at Hanford, rather than disposing of it with used commercial nuclear power plant fuel as had previously been mandated. The federal government has said that because some defense waste is less radioactive and easier to handle, a simpler design might work for a defense repository.

Kotek also discussed plans to find communities willing to play host to repositories for disposal of nuclear waste.

“The administration is committed to a consent-based siting process that involves working with states, tribes, local governments, in a way that leads to signing agreements with what we would call a willing and informed host community for those facilities,” he said.

Parties considering playing host to disposal sites want to be sure it can be done in a way that is fully protective of the environment, he said. They should also feel better off for taking on the challenge.

“It will be incumbent on us to provide information, technical resources and other assets to them as they work through answering those types of questions,” he said.

Cantwell said the three DOE nominees are well-qualified and should be confirmed.