Cantwell: ‘Unacceptable’ for Hanford to Become Nuclear Storage Site, Urges Plan for Defense Waste

Debate over disposal of civilian waste delaying efforts to find a national solution for defense nuclear waste

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said she would need to see an explicit disposal plan for Hanford’s defense-related nuclear waste before supporting any new legislation designed to address the nation’s nuclear waste problem. Cantwell’s comments were made today during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Chairman Jeff Bingaman’s (D-NM) legislation, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2012 (S. 3469). Like the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future report, the legislation fails to address defense waste disposal.

Before a panel of witnesses, which included Dr. Peter B. Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, Cantwell made the case that the nation’s nuclear waste policy should address the disposal of defense nuclear waste and civilian nuclear waste separately.  Doing so would help expedite the removal of high-level defense waste, about 90 percent of which is at Hanford.

“It is unacceptable for this waste to be stored at Hanford,” Cantwell said during today’s hearing. “Here is this military waste that is different and is not made for reprocessing in the context of the witch’s brew of materials that’s there. We are not going to reprocess it so talking about retrieval of that particular waste is not, in my mind, a priority.

Cantwell continued: “So here we are about ready to get caught up in this large debate again. When this could be separated out, dealt with, and moved forward. And it is the largest clean-up site probably in the entire world. And so getting it done and getting it tackled in the most efficient way and the most cost-effective way means not getting it tangled up in this larger debate."

“So I hope that we move forward on this,” Cantwell said. “And I would just say, Mr. Chairman, I can’t move forward on any legislation that doesn’t have a path for separating the military waste and getting this done.”

Click here to watch an archived web video of today’s hearing. Cantwell’s comments start at 1:02:56 and again at 1:22:51.

Debate over how and where to store commercial waste has hurt efforts to find cheaper and faster ways to dispose of defense nuclear waste. In particular, the amended Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a retrievability requirement of up to 100 years. Defense waste is comprised of nuclear byproducts that can never be reprocessed for electricity generation, unlike civilian waste. The permanent disposal of defense waste would open up new repository possibilities such as salt formations that are likely to be considerably less expensive and located in communities that welcome the opportunity.

According to a recent report by Dr. James Conca and Dr. Judith Wright, the cost in 2007 dollars of disposing of 83,000 tons of heavy metal, high-level waste is about $29 billion in massive salt formations, $77 billion in crystalline rock and $83 billion in volcanic tuff. Despite the potential cost advantages of salt formations, the nation’s nuclear waste policy effectively excludes them because any deposits are permanent and cannot meet the retrievability requirement.

Cantwell has expressed concern over the future of Hanford’s nuclear waste many times in the past.  In February, she pressed U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu on whether the disposal of military waste could be prioritized over civilian waste. She also asked him about the possibility of disposing Hanford waste at a Waste Isolation Plant Project (WIPP) facility in New Mexico. Chu responded that he thought it would be “prudent” to treat civilian and military waste differently, and that further studies would need to be done to determine if WIPP could be a safe repository for high-level waste.

At a February 2, 2012, Energy Committee hearing, Cantwell questioned the co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future about their final report’s failure to deal with defense-related waste. Click here to watch a video of Cantwell’s exchange with the Blue Ribbon Commission co-chairs.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s final report, released in late January, addresses how best to manage the nation’s nuclear waste. However, the report only focused on civilian nuclear waste from power plants and did not address what to do with defense-related waste specifically. Commission co-chairs, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and General Brent Scowcroft, and Commission member and former Senator Pete Domenici all testified at the February 2nd hearing. Both chairmen agreed that Hanford waste was a priority and had urged the Administration to launch an immediate review of how to address defense waste.