Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Dec. 8, 2021

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New deadline would delay sending plutonium-contaminated waste off Hanford for 20 years


RICHLAND — The deadline to ship waste contaminated with plutonium off the Hanford site for disposal could be extended by 20 years under a proposal by the Department of Energy and its regulators.

It moves the deadline from fall 2030 to fall 2050 to have radioactive waste classified as transuranic — typically debris contaminated with plutonium at Hanford — shipped from Eastern Washington to a national repository in New Mexico for permanent disposal.

“We realized the that the existing milestone dates were unachievable,” said John Price, Tri-Party Agreement section manager, for the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford nuclear reservation regulator.

But there are some new deadlines in the package of proposed changes negotiated among the three agencies that Ecology enthusiastically supports, Price said.

They include DOE’s commitment to start shipping some waste to New Mexico as soon as 2028.

DOE and its two regulators — Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — set environmental cleanup plans and deadlines for the 580-square-mile Hanford site by agreement in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement.

The latest proposed deadlines cover suspected transuranic waste, including about 11,000 containers stored at the Central Waste Complex in central Hanford.

There also are about 17,500 drums, boxes and other containers of radioactive waste that were temporarily buried in central Hanford because debris in them might be contaminated with plutonium or other transuranic waste.

Waste with artificially-made elements above uranium on the periodic table is classified as transuranic. The waste is also contaminated with other hazardous, nonradioactive chemicals.

The Hanford waste is left from the past production of plutonium from World War II through the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

An online public meeting to discuss the latest proposed changes to the Tri-Party Agreement and answer questions is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 13.

Site to close in 2050

In 1970, Congress said transuranic wastes must be sent to a national repository. But until the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico opened, the waste was buried for later retrieval.

Hanford previously sent some waste to WIPP, but the current schedule for shipping waste there from DOE sites across the nation puts Hanford last in line.

And shipments to WIPP from other DOE sites have been delayed due to problems there starting in 2014, including the explosion of a barrel of stored waste that spread radioactive contamination in the underground repository. It remained closed until 2017.

Work resumed at a slower pace at the plant as a new ventilation system is being installed.

WIPP, once expected to finish accepting waste and close down in 2030, now is expected to close in 2050, coinciding with the proposed new Hanford deadline for shipping transuranic waste off site.

It’s one of about 20 new deadlines proposed — many of them to keep work on track to finish by 2050 — that “establish an achievable schedule for safely managing and disposing of” Hanford’s transuranic and suspected transuranic waste, said Geoff Tyree, a DOE Hanford spokesman.

About half the waste that now is temporarily buried is expected to be classified as low level waste that can be treated and disposed of at Hanford in lined burial trenches in the center of the site rather than being shipped to WIPP.

‘Really difficult work’

The proposed changes to deadlines had to be made because of delays at WIPP to accept waste, Price said.

“We also realize this is really difficult work, for example, the remaining 17,000 containers that have to be dug out of burial grounds,” he said. “That has to be handled very carefully.”

Some buried 55-gallon drums are rusty and falling apart. Their contents are not always known.

While the final proposed deadline is 2050, Ecology is pleased that deadlines would have 99% of the waste shipped off site by 2040.

“The biggest thing is DOE has actually committed to shipment milestones. They have not committed to those in the past,” Price said, about the proposed start of shipments to WIPP in 2028.

The limited waste that would not be shipped to WIPP until after 2040 would include about 100 containers that must be handled with remotely operated equipment because of the radiation they are emitting. The delay would allow more radioactivity to decay.

The proposal also would delay the deadline for digging up temporarily buried suspected transuranic waste from 2028 to 2039.

Questions were raised in negotiations among the Tri-Party Agencies on whether it made sense to dig up more waste to store at the Hanford Central Waste Complex before shipments began on waste already stored there.

Unusual waste containers

New deadlines also are set for dealing with some of the more unusual containers of transuranic waste.

Those include almost 100 large boxes of transuranic waste now stored outside the Central Waste Complex. One 19-foot-long box there was discovered to be leaking in 2014 and DOE was required to improve its waste management practices.

Many of those are planned to be sent to nearby Perma-Fix Northwest for repackaging into smaller containers for shipment to WIPP.

However, because of the amount of plutonium some contain or a size that could be too large to fit through the Perma-Fix doors, repackaging might have to be done at Hanford’s T-Plant.

Some transuranic waste also has to be retrieved from caissons, 10-foot-tall boxes buried 14 feet deep. The caissons have slanted chutes where research waste packed in paint-can-sized containers was dropped down. The waste was too radioactively hot for workers to get near.

Past waste deadline changes

Tri-Party Agreement deadlines for transuranic waste have been previously extended.

The deadline to have all transuranic waste shipped offsite by 2030 was set in 2010, and some deadlines for transuranic waste were revised about five years later as it became apparent DOE would not meet them.

Instructions to log on to Thursday’s meeting are posted at under May 13 on the event calendar.

Public comments also will be accepted before a final decision on new deadlines is made. They may be submitted until June 23 by email to or by mail to Jennifer Colborn; HMIS; PO Box 450, H6-60; Richland, WA 99352.