Feds eye Hanford for nuclear processing
Toxic and radioactive material would travel on state roads
The Hanford Site is on a shortlist of proposed locations for a new federally sponsored nuclear power program.
If approved by the Department of Energy, the plan would change the mission of Hanford and require the trucking of toxic and radioactive material along major Oregon highways. Not surprisingly, the plan has its critics.
Hanford, which is 215 miles upstream from Portland, on the Washington side of the Columbia River, has a long history as a nuclear facility. Plutonium for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1944, was processed at Hanford.
Following an agreement signed in 1989 by the Department of Energy, Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Environmental Protection Agency, operations at Hanford moved into a cleanup phase, which is ongoing.
The cleanup is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
Last year, the Bush administration unveiled a plan that would ramp up the generation of nuclear power on an international level. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership banks on technology for reprocessing nuclear waste into usable fuel.
This process is being touted as a solution for global warming and for the problems of relying on foreign oil for fuel. The GNEP slogan is 'Accelerating clean and safe nuclear energy.'
Currently, 11 sites across the country are being assessed by the Department of Energy as possible locations for waste reprocessing. In addition to Hanford, two facilities in Idaho, two in New Mexico, two in South Carolina, and one each in Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio are under consideration.
Underground tanks may leak
Critics of the plan include U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Portland-area activists. Speakers at an April 14 symposium titled 'Our Poison Planet' held at Portland State University also spoke against the plan.
The symposium, which addressed the impacts of low-level radiation from depleted uranium and other sources, was sponsored by KBOO 90.7 FM, Veterans for Peace, Columbia Riverkeeper, Students United for Nonviolence and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Greg deBruler, a founding member of Columbia Riverkeeper, detailed the current levels of toxicity at Hanford, calling it 'the most contaminated site in America.'
Of particular concern, he said, are the 53 million gallons of high-level waste stored in 177 underground tanks. More than a third of those tanks are suspected of leaking into the soil. Other waste has been poured directly into the ground.
Angela Crowley-Koch, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, questioned every aspect of the GNEP program, calling it expensive, technologically unsound and a threat to national security.
She noted that for the past 30 years, the United States has had a moratorium on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The moratorium was imposed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
'Reprocessing also has some serious health impacts,' Crowley-Koch added. 'It's the most polluting part of the nuclear cycle.'
Waste would be trucked in
The spent fuel from a traditional nuclear reactor contains uranium, plutonium and other long-lived, radioactive material. The technology now exists to extract usable fuel from this substance.
A different type of nuclear reactor, called a fast reactor, could use this fuel to produce energy. Currently there are no fast reactors operating in the United States.
None of the nuclear waste at Hanford is appropriate for reprocessing. For the site to become part of the GNEP, spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors in other parts of the country would be transported to Hanford.
For Hanford to accept the 63,000 metric tons of waste required by the GNEP, around 2,000 shipments of nuclear waste would have to pass through Oregon, Crowley-Koch said. Most of this would travel in unmarked trucks on public highways.
For a GNEP scoping meeting held in Hood River on March 26, Wyden prepared a strongly worded statement of opposition to reprocessing at Hanford.
'Hanford does not need more nuclear waste. It needs less,' the document says. 'Trucking high-level nuclear waste through Oregon for this scheme exposes Oregonians unnecessarily to serious risks. … When you start separating nuclear waste, everything it touches becomes radioactive.'
The need for new sources of energy is a pressing one, but most in the field agree that at the present time, reprocessing nuclear waste is neither clean nor safe.
For information on the Global Nuclear Energy Parnership, see www.gnep.gov.