Tank Closure and Waste Management EIS

a.k.a. The Hanford Cleanup Plan

Cleanup = Protecting Future Generations

High level tank waste stored along the Columbia River is one of the biggest threats to future generations of Pacific Northwesterners.  The Hanford Cleanup Plan lays out several important decisions that will inform the method & extent of cleanup – these decisions will have a direct impact on how much radioactive waste could reach the Columbia River, and in turn affect future health & safety of people and the environment.  The good news is that you can get involved in the decision-making process.  Read below to learn more.

Here is the info you’ll find on this page, click on an image to find out more.   

 

  • Current Status
  • Basic Overview
  • Cleanup Alternatives
  • The Players
  • Public Comments
  • How you can get involved
  • What happens next?
  • Resources & Documents

Current Status of the TC & WM EIS

 The Department of Energy is reviewing public comments on the draft submitted in January 2010.  A final draft is expected in late summer 2012. The Hanford Advisory Board is working on draft advice for the June 2012 Board meeting to ask for extended time to review the Final document.

Hanford Challenge: The Invisible Challenge from Beth Sanders/Athena Video Arts on Vimeo.

Basic Overview

The Hanford Cleanup Plan (the TC & WM EIS) is a document researched &  produced by the US Department of Energy (USDOE) analyzing six different cleanup alternatives for Hanford.  Remediating the billions of gallons of nuclear waste stored or dumped at the Hanford site is an amazingly complex process.

The Cleanup Plan presents a spectrum of alternatives and their potential outcomes – from not cleaning up anything (as a baseline “no action” alternative) to different levels and methods of cleanup.  The public was invited to comment on the TC & WM EIS; after the USDOE reviews the comments they received,  it will release a final report that is part of the legal framework guiding cleanup.  There are many kinds of decisions that need to be made about Hanford cleanup – two big questions whose answers inform cleanup decisions are:

  1. How clean is clean?  In other words, to what extent do the waste and contaminated materials need to be removed, treated or otherwise dealt with?
  2. Risk vs. Cost  How much tax payer money are we willing to spend cleaning up Hanford?  What level of risk do we feel comfortable with?  For example, do we go after the contamination deep underground that could leach into the Columbia River?  This is a very expensive proposal, however, radioactive contamination in the river could pose certain risks to future generations.

Read more about the TC&WMEIS in our Winter 2010 Newsletter

 

How to get involved now:

  1. Email or mail additional comments to the Department of Energy – new comments will not necessarily be reviewed by the USDOE.
  2. Post your thoughts on this website!  We like to know what you think, and we can pass your thoughts along to the appropriate agency.

Get involved in other decisions that cover similar issues – the TC & WM EIS covers a wide range of cleanup decisions, however, some decisions regarding waste tank cleanup, locations for waste repositories and other issues are ongoing.  See our events calendar for upcoming public comment periods.

Cleanup Alternatives

What Hanford’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement really says is, “OK – How do YOU think we should clean all of this stuff up?”  The engineering staff at Hanford has proposed a series of clean up measures.  These measures are an attempt to do two things at once:  One is to prevent future radioactive releases, and the other is to begin restoring the land to a safer condition.  Everyone involved assumes that the costs will be high, the progress deliberate, and that the technical issues will be complex.  Read below for a description of four of the decisions addressed in the EIS.

Anatomy of a Tank. Image courtesy of USDOE

How much waste should be removed from the high level waste tanks?  There are 177 underground tanks at Hanford that store 53 million gallons of high level nuclear and chemical waste from plutonium production.  it is a mixture of radioactive and toxic chemicals, water and solid waste The waste is not homogenous,– the consistency is often compared to peanut butter.  The heavier elements sink to the bottom over time. Plutonium is very heavy so it is likely that the bottom .01% has a higher concentration of plutonium than the rest of the mixture.  The EIS presents alternatives for removing 90%, 99% and 99.9% of the waste from each tank.  Hanford Challenge recommends that 99.9% of the waste be removed and treated.

As Good As Glass

Vitrification Process. Diagram courtesy of WA Ecology.

What is the best way to immobilize tank waste?  The Hanford tank waste is being stored in underground tanks that are beyond their design life. Some  have leaked.  This waste needs to be contained while the radionuclides present in the waste decay.  Different technologies exist and were evaluated in the EIS including vitrification, steam reforming, cast stone, and bulk vitrification.  Vitrification is currently the most promising technology, and will contain the waste for the longest period of time by mixing tank waste with glass to form glass logs.  However, we do not currently have the technology to contain this waste for as long as some of the elements will be radioactive – plutonium 239 has a half life of 24,000 years which means it will be radioactive for 240,000 years.  Any treatment technology chosen must be as good as glass, at this point vitrificaiton is the best choice.

Plume map at the SX Tank Farm.

Clean Closure

A significant goal of the EIS is to set a plan for “closing” the tank farms.  What work needs to be done in and around the tanks before USDOE calls cleanup finished forever?  There are 177 tanks, 149 of them are single shelled and 28 are of the newer, more robust, double shell design.  One third of the tanks are confirmed leakers, leaking  about one million gallons of toxic chemicals and radioactive waste into the soil under the tanks.  The EIS presents two kinds of alternatives for “closing” the tanks and finishing tank cleanup: landfill closure where the tanks are left in place and a cap installed over the soil surface, or clean closure where tanks are removed and soil underneath the tanks treated.  Capping the tank farms will not keeprain or snow from filtering through the soil and eventually reaching buried contamination. There it could  carry contaminants through the groundwater to the Columbia River.  The most protective alternative is removing the tanks that sit over underground waste, and removing and treating the contaminated soil.  However, not all tanks may need to be removed for thorough remediation.

Spatial Distribution of Groundwater Iodine-129 Concentration (Non–TC & WM EIS Sources), Calendar Year 2135. Diagram from the TC & WM EIS, Appendix U. Click here for link to Appendix U.

Radioactive Waste Dump?

Nuclear waste persists for a long time. In addition to tank waste, the EIS analyzes the effects of disposal

alternatives for low-level and mixed low-level radioactive waste. The waste under consideration originates from Hanford and other US nuclear sites. An Integrated Disposal Facility (a big lined hole in the ground), was built to supplement the current burial grounds. The options on the table are to expand the hole or dig another to accommodate offsite waste along with Hanford waste.  Comments are currently being accepted on a related decision in the Greater than Class C Environmental Impact Statement.  That is an evaluation of different sites around the country where national low level nuclear waste may be stored.  Hanford is on the short list to receive additional waste.

The Players

How Many Stakeholders does it take to clean up Hanford?  All of us!

You & Me = the Public: Ultimately, the public is responsible for and in control of the Hanford cleanup.  We influence cleanup through our voting habits, holding public agencies accountable, and funding the cleanup through taxes.  Most of the ways we influence cleanup are indirect, as mentioned above.  But there are some opportunities for direct action – public comment periods and legal action are two examples.

Congress:  Congress makes laws that guide cleanup, directs the budget and can hold investigations about issues as they arise.

Contractors:  Businesses that contract with the USDOE to complete an aspect of the Hanford cleanup.  Contractors employ most of the employees on the Hanford site.

Environmental Protection Agency:  The EPA is a regulatory agency – which means they monitor the USDOE and the Hanford cleanup, approve or deny certain actions, and make sure that federal cleanup law is being followed.  The EPA is also a Tri-Party Agency.

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board: DNFSB is an Executive Branch (appointed by the President) agency whose mandate is to provide safety oversight of the nuclear weapons complex operated by the USDOE. The Executive branch guides policy and budget, and can hold investigations.

Hanford:  The nuclear site in Eastern Washington and most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere.

Hanford Advisory Board:  An independent, non-partisan board made up of members from different stakeholder groups, including the public at large.  The HAB’s mission is to provide informed advice to the Department of Energy about Hanford cleanup.

Judiciary:  The TC & WM EIS is a legally required document that must fulfill the law set out in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).  If this CERCLA law is not met, the agency can be sued to bring them into legal compliance.  Other agencies, non-profit groups and the public can initiate law suits.

Public Interest Groups:  Public interest groups are non-profit, non-governmental organizations that work in the public’s interest for a safe & thorough cleanup of the Hanford site, protective of future generations.

The Tribes:  The Treaty of 1855 between the US Government and Indian Nations granted the Tribes rights to fish and hunt in their “usual and accustomed” places; the Hanford site is within this larger territory.  Contamination in the soil, water, plants and animals on site pose significant health risks to traditional uses.  The Yakama Nation, Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla have entered into cooperative agreements with the US Government to oversee cleanup of the Hanford site.

Tri-City Communities: People who live, work and play in the communities nearest Hanford.

Tri-Party Agency:  A Tri-Party Agency is one of the three agencies that are part of the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA.)  The TPA was signed by the USDOE, the EPA and the Washington Department of Ecology in 1989 to lay out a legally binding agreement to ensure that the Hanford cleanup meets federal and state environmental laws (CERCLA & RCRA), and has a legally enforceable schedule and milestones.

US Department of Energy:  The USDOE is the government “owner” of the Hanford site, along with other nuclear weapons complex sites in the US.  Their mandate is to clean up the site.  USDOE does not undertake cleanup actions, it hires contractors to carry out the cleanup projects, and oversees the cleanup in general.   USDOE is also one of the Tri-Party Agencies.

Washington State Department of Ecology:  The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is a regulatory agency – they monitor the USDOE and the Hanford cleanup to ensure that Washington state environmental laws are met & followed.  Ecology is also a Tri-Party Agency.

 

Public Comments

During the TC & WM EIS public comment period, many organizations and individuals sent the US Department of Energy their comments on the document.  A public comment can take many forms: a statement of values, technical review of the cleanup plan, opinions on different alternatives, requests for particular actions, legal analysis, etc.

Here are the public comments of key organizations:

  • Hanford Challenge: full comments, key excerpts
  • The Yakama Nation
  • Washington State Department of Ecology
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Oregon Department of Energy
  • Hanford Advisory Board

Interested in comparing what these agencies have to say?  Take a look at this document with excerpts from their comments on different topics including high-level waste tanks, immobilizing waste: from liquid to solid form, groundwater, and clean up alternatives.

USDOE should revise and reissue the draft EIS and not move forward with a final EIS until such time as a complete site characterization is conducted and after valid risk assessment models are developed.

–Hanford Challenge

Your Comments: we want to hear what you have to say!

It’s not too late to get involved.  While the official public comment period may be over, your values and insights still matter.  Have a comment on the TC & WM EIS?  We want to hear it!  Click here to send us your comments.  We will send your comments to USDOE, and if you give us permission, may post them on our website.

Check out our comment form to participate in the public discussion about important cleanup decisions at Hanford.

What Happens Next?

The US Department of Energy will release the final Environmental Impact Statement in Winter 2011/Spring 2012.  This document will lay out the formal and legally binding plans on how to proceed with the cleanup decisions contained in the document.  There may be opportunities for the public to share their thoughts on the final document – and there certainly will be opportunities for discussion with Hanford Challenge about what the EIS means for the future of Hanford.

Hanford is a complicated cleanup, and the Tank Closure & Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement is one of many documents that finalize cleanup alternatives.  Check back on our Events Calendar page to see upcoming decisions of interest including additional Environmental Impact Statements.

Current Public Comment Period:  Where will we store national low level radioactive waste?  Hanford is on the list of alternatives.  Click here for more information on the Greater Than Class C Low-Level Radioactive Waste Environmental Impact Statement.

Resources & Documents

  • The Tank Closure & Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement
  • Hanford Challenge Newsletter focusing on the TC & WM EIS
  • Washington Department of Ecology Fact Sheet on the TC & WM EIS
  • Our Nuclear Past & Future: A Conversation for WA – Article by Tom Carpenter, Executive Director of Hanford Challenge
  • Hanford Challenge Comments on the TC & WM EIS

 

This webpage was funded through a grant from WA State Department of Ecology. While these materials were reviewed for consistency, this does not necessarily constitute endorsement by Ecology.