Local officials are headed to Washington, D.C. at the end of February to vie for Hanford funding under the Trump Administration.
“It’s such a huge effort,” says Alex Smith, referring to the cleanup of nuclear waste left just north of Richland. “It has to go to a deep national repository.”
Smith joined the Department of Ecology as program manager at the Richland Nuclear Waste Office in April, bringing with her years of legal experience from the Attorney General’s office handling Hanford issues.
She is one of several local officials and experts going to Washington, D.C. to advocate for continued funding and cleanup of the site.
“It's not like it’s going to take a decade or two to happen,” says Smith. “It's multi-generational, so the hard part is just keeping the momentum going over such a long period of time.”
According to Smith, while the new presidency raises questions about Hanford’s future, the budget is almost always stable and given a lot of funding. The next steps are ironing out the details and reiterating the site’s needs.
“We need to get it cleaned up,” asserts Gary Petersen with the Tri-City Development Council.
Petersen has been in the fight for a long time, even joining state attorney general Bob Ferguson and Lampson International president Bill Lampson in a federal lawsuit to get the waste moving out of Washington.
“The Hanford site has the highest concentration off nuclear waste materials of any place in the United States,” he explains.
Petersen’s suggestion – send the waste to storage in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
“Yucca Mountain is the law of the land passed by the Nuclear Rights Policy Act of 1982,” says Petersen. “Documents…showed Yucca Mountain would be safe for storage of nuclear waste for one million years.”
However, the project was halted under the Obama Administration because of Nevada’s pushback. To date, Petersen says it has likely cost $15 billion.
Now that congress is controlled by the GOP, Petersen is optimistic the Yucca Mountain plan can move ahead.
Meanwhile, nuclear waste nationwide continues to sit where it is.
“We end up leaving all that spent fuel and nuclear waste all the way across the country in 144 different locations,” he says. “And worse, we have all of the operating working nuclear reactors, most of them alongside our rivers and oceans and so on.”
In a letter to the president (pictured below), state representatives say 54.6 million gallons of that waste sit in tanks at Hanford.
“The good thing about the tank farm is that they're right in the middle of the site, and they are 250 feet above the ground water level,” says Smith. “But that said, over a million gallons have already leaked from those tanks. And the tanks are not getting any younger, they just continue to degrade over time.”
In addition to the presidential letter sent by a dozen Washington state representatives, officials continue to push government agencies to keep Hanford cleanup in mind. Senator Maria Cantwell is a big proponent of this, pushing the issue during energy secretary nominee Rick Perry’s vetting process.
“I am committed to working with you to prioritize one of the most dangerous, most polluted sites that we have in this country,” Perry responded.
Construction of the vitrification plant to convert liquid waste into glass is already underway at Hanford, but without Yucca Mountain’s storage guaranteed, officials say the big question remains: what happens to the waste next?
“There's no immediate concern,” says Smith. “But there is some sense of urgency around getting the waste out of those tanks before they degrade and we get additional leaks. We want to make sure we're protecting the Columbia River.”
And as Smith says, she’s ready to take on the task.
“It's a lot of really hard challenges, and a chance to interact with the community and make a difference.”
The trip by local officials to D.C. will last from February 23-24. Afterward, members will bring back their findings and present their experiences to local city councils.
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Dennis Shannon contributed to this report.
The letter to President Donald Trump by Washington State officials is below: