Correspondence Received from the State Attorney General’s Office Regarding Contaminants at Hanford Nuclear Reservation
I am an Assistant Attorney General assigned to work on Hanford cleanup issues, including the high-level waste issues referred to in your letter. Most of the high-level radioactive waste at the Hanford site is stored in 177 massive, aging underground storage tanks. The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) has stored waste in these tanks for decades, and the older single-shell tanks are many years beyond their design life. Several of the tanks have already leaked over one million gallons of highly toxic and radioactive waste into surrounding soils and groundwater.
Pursuant to the Tri-Party Agreement–an agreed cleanup order signed by USDOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology–USDOE is required to retrieve the wastes from these tanks, separate out the most highly radioactive portion from the lesser contaminated fraction, and solidify both fractions in a treatment facility that USDOE is currently constructing at Hanford. The high-level fraction of waste would then be disposed of in a specially designed deep geologic repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The lesser contaminated portion of the waste, referred to as “low-activity waste,” would be disposed of on-site at Hanford.
Federal law–specifically the Nuclear Waste Policy Act–requires that “high-level radioactive waste” be disposed of in a deep geologic repository, such as Yucca Mountain. Consequently, the State of Washington has insisted that high-level radioactive waste be retrieved from the Hanford tanks and be disposed of at Yucca. The State has not opposed disposal of the treated, solidified low-activity faction of the waste at Hanford, provided the radioactivity has been sufficiently removed. However, a few years ago, USDOE adopted a policy that gave it broad discretion to reclassify high-level waste and thereby potentially avoid disposing of some of the high-level fraction in the repository. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental group, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Idaho, challenging this USDOE policy. In response to the challenge, USDOE argued, among other things, that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was inapplicable to its waste, and that USDOE had the discretion to not send any of its waste to Yucca Mountain for disposal. This was of significant concern to the State. Consequently, this office entered the lawsuit as an amicus (“friend of the court”) party and, along with the states of Oregon, Idaho, New York, and South Carolina, filed a brief in the case describing the States’ position. Ultimately, we helped to persuade the court that USDOE was wrong and that its policy violated the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
USDOE has since appealed the case to the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, where the case remains pending. Our office has likewise filed an amicus brief with that court, on behalf of Washington and the other four states referenced above. In the meantime, USDOE has attempted to persuade Congress to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, reverse USDOE’s loss of in federal court. USDOE is attempting to get the law amended behind closed doors, without public input, without even submitting the draft legislation to committees of jurisdiction. The Attorney General and Governor have written several letters to congressional leadership indicating that they do not believe that this legislation is necessary, and that they oppose the “back door” manner in which USDOE is pursuing its enactment.
That is a thumbnail summary of the issue. I hope that you find it helpful. Also, you asked for some articles on the topic. The Tri-City Herald has run several articles on the waste reclassification issue. Here’s a link:
Thank you for your interest.
Joe Shorin, Assistant Attorney General
Letter from Senator Cantwell’s Office
Regarding Nuclear Waste Legislation
May 26, 2004
I’m writing to tell you about an urgent issue with dire
consequences for the environment. The Department of Energy
(DOE) is pushing a plan to leave highly radioactive nuclear waste
in leaking underground tanks, rather than properly cleaning it up.
For years, the DOE has sought the authority to reclassify high-
level nuclear waste as “incidental” waste. This would relieve DOE
of its obligation to dispose of radioactive nuclear waste in sites
such as Hanford. Instead, DOE would leave an indeterminate
amount of this waste in the leaky tanks, attempting to seal them
with a mix of sand, cement and grout – a solution rejected by
scientists for the last 50 years. Considering that more than 1.1
million people live down river from Hanford in both Washington
and Oregon, this is a reckless proposal. Moreover, last year, federal
courts found that DOE’s plan violated the Nuclear Waste Policy
But over the last few weeks, DOE officials have teamed up with a
few members of the Senate Armed Services committee to try to
sneak language into the Department of Defense reauthorization bill
which would allow DOE to accomplish its long-standing goal of
short-cutting the cleanup process. This attempted end-run around
the legislative process has taken place behind closed doors, without
public hearings. Last week I fought their sneak attack on the
Senate floor, arguing for a public process and that this legislation
should be considered by the Energy and Natural Resources
Committee, not the Senate Armed Services Committee. (You can
read my statement on the Senate floor on my web site at
I’m going to keep up the fight, and now, you can help. I will
soon send a letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and
Senate leaders, urging them to withdraw their support for the
proposed reclassification of nuclear waste. I invite you to join me
in sending a strong message about the importance of this issue by
co-signing my letter through my web site’s online petition.
Together, we can stop this end-run in its tracks.
To co-sign my letter, please visit my web site at
Thank you for your support, and I will keep you updated on this
United States Senator
From Senator Patty Murray’s office:
Hanford Nuclear Cleanup
Located in Southeast Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a 560-acre nuclear facility.
During World War II, Hanford was used to produce plutonium for some of America’s first nuclear bombs. Residents of the surrounding Tri-Cities area (Richland, Pasco and Kennewick) sacrificed to help America win the war and the following Cold War.
In the 1980′s, the site was used to produce nuclear weapons materials. This involved:
*operating 9 nuclear reactors
*processing nuclear material
*and storing the resulting nuclear waste
Unfortunately, a large amount of highly radioactive nuclear waste was created, and it poses serious health, safety, and environmental hazards.
We Need to Clean It Up
-There are 177 underground tanks that hold more than 50 million gallons of nuclear waste material. These old tanks are past their safe lifespan.
-There are also two large underground water basins which hold all the spent nuclear fuel rods from the operation of the reactors.
-It’s unhealthy for residents and unsafe for the environment.
-The underground waste holding tanks have leaked in the past.
-Waste that has leaked into the underground water table is moving toward the Columbia River.
-The waste will be removed from the tanks and turned into glass, which is more stable for long term storage.
-A plant to convert the waste into glass is under construction and should be processing waste by 2007.
Living Up to An Agreement
In May 1989, three parties — Washington State, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy — signed a comprehensive cleanup and compliance agreement, known as the Tri-Party Agreement.
This agreement set a timetable for the cleanup and set certain milestones and deadlines. To meet these cleanup deadlines, the federal government must provide the necessary funding.