Reinterpreting high-level nuclear waste
A federal proposal could mean significant changes in how Hanford tank waste is treated.
The U.S. Department of Energy has adopted a new interpretation of “high-level waste” that gives the agency unilateral authority to determine what constitutes high-level nuclear waste. This decision could have far-reaching consequences for how the waste in Hanford’s 177 underground tanks — currently classified as high-level waste — is treated and disposed of. In particular, it could mean that the federal Energy department would propose to leave millions more gallons of waste in the tanks, rather than removing it and incorporating it in glass as currently planned.
Federal law – 33 USCS §1402 (j) – defines high-level waste as the irradiated fuel from a nuclear reactor and the waste generated when that fuel is processed to extract other products. Federal laws further require high-level nuclear waste be treated to make it stable and then disposed of in a deep geologic repository.
What’s in the tanks
Hanford’s single-minded mission was to make plutonium for atomic bombs. Over nearly five decades, the site produced two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium. Its nine reactors irradiated uranium, and its various processing facilities used a succession of toxic chemicals to extract the small amounts of plutonium produced during the irradiation. In all, more than 100,000 tons of uranium were processed to make about 75 tons of plutonium. Virtually everything that wasn’t plutonium remains on site. This includes the millions of gallons of chemicals used to extract pounds of plutonium from tons of irradiated uranium.
Those radionuclide-laced chemicals went into Hanford’s 177 huge underground tanks. Every gallon of that waste currently is classified as high-level.