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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

What Makes Hanford’s 'TRU' Tank Waste Different From The Rest?

Anna King
Northwest News Network

RICHLAND, Wash. - The U.S. Department of Energy says its wants to send 3 million gallons of radioactive tank waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to a storage site in New Mexico. That’s 3 million gallons out of a total of 56 million gallons of some of the most toxic stuff on earth.

But what is different about this waste in particular, and why some groups are against moving it to New Mexico?

At a recent news conference at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington Governor Jay Inslee said, “We have some good news here today.”

After the governor learned that up to three gallons of radioactive waste per day was seeping into the sand at Hanford, he toured the site looking for answers. At the conclusion of his bus ride, he laid out the federal government's preferred solution.

“... an effort to remove that waste from these single shell tanks, and remove the product after a stabilization process to New Mexico at the WIPP facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico.”

The waste Inslee spoke about is different from all the rest. Federal officials think that 3 millon gallons could be classified as transuranic waste, or TRU for short.

Cheryl Whalen is Washington State’s radioactive waste expert. She has a steely gaze, and seven years of tank farm watching under her belt. Whalen reads aloud the legal definition of TRU waste.

“ … waste that the department has determined with the concurrence of the administrator do not need the degree of isolation …”

It’s difficult to understand, even for the experts like Whalen. But here’s the gist:

Transuranic waste has a lot of very long-lived radionuclides with higher numbers on the periodic table than uranium – think that special little box on the periodic table under the big one you studied in high school. Some radioactive stuff in it has a half-life of 24,000 years. That means this waste will be dangerous for a long time, longer than a lot of the other waste at Hanford.

But here’s the thing, it has never been in contact with high level waste. It’s from a different chemical process. Sure it’s hot, but some of it is easier to handle. So that’s why Hanford engineers can send this waste to salt caves in New Mexico and the rest of it is waiting for a $12 billion waste treatment plant in southeast Washington.

Whalen says that the similarities between high-level waste and TRU waste are that “they are both very hazardous and very long lived.”

And before Hanford’s tank waste can be sent to New Mexico, the waste may have to be redefined in law and rules would have to change at the southwest site.

“We think that’s a designation that would have to be made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and not the Department of Energy,” says Tom Carpenter, head of Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group. His and two other environmental organizations say DOE’s plan is illegal and a time waster. They just sent a letter saying that to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“Again, you’re just putting complication upon complication and risk," Carpenter says. "And we’re tired of that. We’d like to see a simple solution that gets us down the road. And that solution is new tanks.”

The Department of Energy responds: that the new option would expedite cleanup at Hanford without risking the mission of the federal waste storage facility in New Mexico.

On the Web:

Backgrounder on radioactive waste - Nuclear Regulatory Commission
"New Mexico Salt Beds Could Become Nations Nuclear Dump" (May 13, 2010) - NPR

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.