Leaking nuclear waste site to be cleaned up

The Department of Energy and Washington State have agreed an accelerated clean-up strategy of the contaminated site surrounding the Hanford nuclear power plant, which has been leaking radioactive materials into the environment for 40 years. The clean-up operation is now set to be completed 35 to 45 years sooner than the current estimated completion date of 2070.

The Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has announced that a Letter of Intent has been signed, following a series of meetings between the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and state Washington officials. “This agreement demonstrates the Bush Administration’s commitment to accelerated clean-up and ensures progress long sought by the Department, EPA, and Washington State,” he said.

However, this week, the EPA Administrator was criticised by Senators for failures over the cleanup of contaminated sites (see related story).

This is the first agreement reached under the Department of Energy’s new Environmental Management Accelerated Clean-up Program, which aims to streamline operations by working with States and regulators to identify and reduce the greatest health and environmental risks at the country’s Cold War nuclear weapons production facilities.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Hanford Site, located in the South-East of Washington State, was established during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project. Although the site is no longer operational, it remains highly contaminated. With an area of 1,518 square kilometres (586 square miles), it is the site of the world’s largest clean-up operation.

Forty-two improvement initiatives for accelerating cleanup and reducing risks are identified under the agreement framework. The DOE will develop specific goals for physical progress by 2007 and 2012. It is believed that funding requests for environmental management activities at the Hanford site will increase by $433 million as details of the accelerated clean-up plan are finalised, bringing the total budget request to more than US$2 billion in Fiscal year 2003.

Colleen Clark, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy, Richland Operations, spoke to edie about the complicated challenges facing the remediation teams. “The main focus is protecting the Colombia River. There are 21 hundred metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel sitting in the K basins that are about a thousand feet from the Colombia River. This fuel is stranded in the basins and beginning to corrode. In December 2000 we began a project to remove the nuclear fuel from the water.”

This project alone requires great expertise. As the material is flammable out of water, it needs to be packaged under water and then transported to a cold vacuum drying facility where helium is injected to replace the water in the spent fuel.

“We’re cleaning up contaminated soil around the nine reactors, that’s 14 million tonnes of contaminated soil in the next ten years,” Clark explained. “Soil is being removed from the river shore and is taken to the centre of the Hanford site for landfill in a lined disposal trench”.

The clean-up programme aims to accelerate the retrieval of high-level waste from storage tanks. “Tank waste will be turned to glass, an immobile form,” Clark explained. “Fifty three million gallons of tank waste is to be glassified. This will go into a high level underground waste repository in Yucca Mountain Nevada – though this repository is not yet operational (see related story).”

Whilst the new agreement signals a hastened clean-up operation, the health issues surrounding the Hanford nuclear reservation and the eventual outcome of radioactive waste remains the subject of immense public concern.

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