Feds look to ship Wash. radioactive waste to NM

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 6, 2013 at 7:52 pm •  Published: March 6, 2013
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Officials estimate that some 7,000 to 40,000 drums of waste would be trucked to New Mexico, depending on how the waste is treated and its final form.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the proposal is a good start in the process of getting rid of Hanford's waste.

"I will be insistent that the full cycle of technical review and permitting is resolved so that any grouted material does not remain in the state of Washington," Inslee said.

Inslee traveled Wednesday to Hanford to learn more about the leaking waste tanks. His trip came a day after federal officials acknowledged budget cuts may disrupt efforts to empty the aging vessels.

Inslee said sending waste to New Mexico is two to four years away. He also said a system is in place to treat the groundwater should contamination from the leaks reach it.

In the meantime, Inslee plans to push Congress to fully fund this proposal, saying "every single dollar of it is justified."

South-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country's nuclear weapons arsenal.

The tanks hold some 56 million gallons of waste and have long surpassed their intended 20-year lifespan. The Energy Department has said the leaking tanks could be releasing as much as 1,000 gallons a year.

State and federal officials have said the leaking materials pose no immediate threat to public safety or the environment, but the leaks raise concerns about the potential for groundwater to be contaminated and, ultimately, reach the neighboring Columbia River about 5 miles away.

Inslee has said repeatedly that Washington state has a "zero tolerance" policy for leaks.

In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 4,800 workers in Washington, including 2,800 contract employees dealing with tank waste and construction of a plant to treat the waste, the agency said.

Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor's initial concern is for the workers, but he emphasized budget constraints cannot be an excuse to delay response to the leaking tanks.

The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford — one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally — so the project is still in line to receive most of its usual federal funding.

Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote in his letter layoffs and furloughs may curtail progress related to closing the tanks.

The cuts within the Energy Department's budget are the result of debate in Congress, where Republicans and President Barack Obama are fighting over how to curtail the nation's debt.

Energy Department officials said their budget was being reduced by some $1.9 billion.

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Associated Press writers Mike Baker in Olympia and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.