22 July 2010

Hanford and Yucca Mountain add heat to the Senate race

Elections are drawing near, and the competition is radioactive. Washington incumbent Patty Murray and challenger Dino Rossi are going head to head over nuclear waste - each focusing on proving that they support reopening Yucca Mountain more.

But beyond the political issue, we at HOANW see problems with reopening Yucca, the Nevada nuclear waste repository recently put on hold by the Obama administration.

Believe me, it's hard to even extend beyond the political issue. Obama supports Nevada senator and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for whom the closure of a nuclear repository within his state would be a big boost to his election campaign. Washington State politicians seem to be following an Anywhere-But-Hanford mindset, appealing to our citizens by saying "Not In Our Backyard" -- but they simultaneously ignore key facts that should influence this highly crucial process.

We have a predominant issue with Yucca Mountain: the U.S. Department of Energy would be permitted to dramatically lower health standards to levels below the national requirements. If allowed there, the same policies could be applied at Hanford in the future. At Yucca, this would create a harmful excess that would extend 18 km around the repository, leaving waste levels that the EPA and NRC predict are high enough to cause fatal cancer in over 3 out of 10,000 exposed adults (the national standards are set at 1 out of 10,000).

The precedent that continuing Yucca Mountain sets does not bode well for our Hanford Nuclear Waste Site. Groundwater, drinking water, and cancer-causing agent standards exist for a reason, and permitting the USDOE to make exceptions harms all affected communities.

Yucca, like Hanford, is near farms and families. It lies only 12 miles away from Amargosa Valley, a farming community that provides milk across the entire southwest.

Also like Hanford, the federal decision at Yucca will affect Native Americans whose land in the area is protected by national treaties. The Western Shoshone Nation is protected by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, and violating this protection would put this community at enormous risk from exposure to nuclear waste.

Whether or not Yucca Mountain opens, its capacity would not be large enough to accomodate all of Hanford's wastes intended for a deep geologic repository. "Most of Hanford's High-Level Nuclear Waste has never been planned to go to Yucca Mountain," our executive director Gerry Pollet says. After the opening of Hanford's vitrification plant, 90% of the vitrified waste is planned to stay at Hanford, while the remaining 10% will require a whole new repository, as Yucca Mountain's capacity will by then be fully filled.

Cleanup needs to happen. But cleanup needs to happen without sacrificing health standards, Native American treaties, and food safety regulation.

The senators have invited nuclear waste into their electoral competition, and it certainly is a hot spot guaranteed to reel in votes. But we hope Washingtonians will consider the broader scope, and urge politicians to acknowledge the more complicated factors that should be affecting their decisions.

14 July 2010

Gerry Pollet to Testify for Blue Ribbon Commission Today!

We are excited to see the testimonial of our own executive director, Gerry Pollet, who has been a passionate and indefatigable leader in Hanford cleanup, before President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission today at 4:20 PST.

President Obama has sought to close Yucca Mountain, the Nevada repository constructed for importing waste from Hanford and other nuclear waste sites. Today, his team visits Hanford, WA, to examine the nuclear waste area and consider the opinions of Hanford experts in their decision.

The commission is interested in exploring alternatives to the Yucca Mountain repository.

Mr. Pollet will present to the commission several key concerns over Hanford's capacity, waste disposal, and detriments of reprocessing this afternoon.

He will explain that the vitrification plant, which would combine waste and glass to form a more easily stored solid, would produce more than could be stored at Yucca Mountain even if it were to open according to schedule. As such, Hanford needs long-term, on-site storage for vitrified products.

Mr. Pollet will explain that this will be needed regardless of Yucca Mountain's status, due to the large quantities of vitrified waste which Hanford would not be able to currently accomodate without increased health and environmental detriment.

Mr. Pollet will also address the concerns over the vitrification plant's capacity. Slated to open in 2019, the plant is currently $8 billion over budget. The capacity will handle only 50% of the 54 million gallons of High-Level Nuclear Waste.
The Department of Energy recommends vitrifying Low Activity Waste as well; this will create releases that will exceed health and water standards of the Columbia River.

Mr. Pollet will emphasize that the capacity of Hanford land to withhold nuclear waste has already been overwhelmed, and contains pre-1970 waste with no plan for removal. He will point out the counterproductive practice of the USDOE's self-regulation, which prevents accurate and effective decisionmaking in regards to waste disposal.

Finally, he will discuss how reprocessing in fact creates enormous quantities of nuclear waste. It created the  54 million gallons of High-Level Nuclear Waste currently sitting in Hanford tanks, with no plan of action for disposal, and will only create more hazardous material if it is chosen as a plan of action.

Check out Gerry's speech this afternoon at 4:20 p.m. P.S.T.! His presentation hopefully will influence the decision of the presidential blue ribbon commission and help Hanford get the "Clean Up First" treatment that we support.

12 July 2010

Coverage of Hanford and Heart of America Northwest in the New York Times!
This weekend, a Sunday article in the New York Times quoted Gerry Pollet, Heart of America Northwest's Executive Director, on the Department of Energy's dramatic underestimates of the amount of plutonium in wastes at Hanford. Read the whole article: "A New Analysis Triples U.S. Plutonium Waste Figures.

Today (July 12, 2010) the Times' "Green Blog" covered Gerry's upcoming testimony to President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future on July 14th:

A Watchdog’s Warning on Nuclear Waste

The entrance to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A commission opens hearings this week aimed at identifying alternative sites or methods for disposing of nuclear waste.
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images The entrance to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A commission opens hearings this week aimed at identifying alternative sites or methods for disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste.
When President Obama said he wanted to discontinue work to develop a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, one of the entities that filed suit to protect the project was Washington State, where vast amounts of nuclear waste accumulated at the Hanford nuclear reservation, a weapons site. As I reported on Sunday, a new report suggests that Hanford has a lot more plutonium waste that the Energy Department had acknowledged.

This week, a blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste established to seek alternatives to Yucca will hold two days of hearings near Hanford. And one of the experts giving testimony will be Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, which describes itself as a watchdog group focused on Hanford.

Mr. Pollet’s prepared testimony argues that Hanford has deeper problems than the possible demise of Yucca Mountain. Even if Yucca had opened as planned 10 years ago, it would not have enough space for all of Hanford’s wastes, he argues. The Energy Department is trying to build a factory at Yucca that will take liquid wastes and mix them with molten glass to produce a solid, as a factory at another bomb plant in South Carolina is already doing. But at the moment, there is no final resting place for these “vitrified” wastes.

“Long-term on-site storage capacity for vitrified wastes has always been needed, along with a second deep geologic repository for high-level nuclear wastes,’’ his prepared testimony says.

Heart of America’s main argument is that wastes already buried or dumped at Hanford will, by the government’s own projections, begin turning up in the Columbia River or in underground water supplies at levels hundreds of times higher than drinking water standards in centuries and millenniums to come, and that with no plan in place to clean up that material, the department should not bury any more.

But the group had a message more relevant to the blue-ribbon commission. The panel is studying whether the volume of used reactor fuel could be reduced and the longevity of its radioactive materials cut, by reprocessing it – that is, running it through chemical processes to retrieve materials that could be put into new reactors as fuel.

Heart of America’s argument is that the activity that produced the Hanford wastes was quite similar to this, with uranium from reactors chopped up to retrieve the plutonium created as a side-effect of nuclear fission. The lesson, Mr. Pollet warns, is that “reprocessing creates vast amounts of liquid high-level nuclear wastes.’’

09 July 2010

The next comment period...

Any given day of the year, there's usually at least one aspect of Hanford cleanup that the public can chime in on, which is one of the reasons why we're so busy at HOANW!

Through July 22, you can submit your comments on the proposed extension to an apatite barrier along the Columbia River (in Hanford's 100-N area) to reduce the flow of Strontium-90 into the River. Generally, we think this is a good idea, but we have a few concerns. Check out our new factsheet for more information, and submit your comments to 100NRPP@rl.gov by July 22nd!
Strontium-90 (a radioactive fission product) contamination of the groundwater at Hanford's 100-N area along the Columbia River. The federal Drinking Water Standard for Strontium-90 is 8 pCi/L, and the area shaded red is over 1,000 times the standard. Image from the 2008 Hanford Site Groundwater Monitoring Report