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Obama’s Plan B for nuke waste: Hanford

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 31, 2009 at 9:16 pm |
September 1, 2009 1:03 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Washington doesn’t have the geology to store high-level nuclear wastes. Too much groundwater; too much risk of radioactivity spreading into aquifers and the Columbia River.

Such was the verdict of the scientists and policymakers who rejected Hanford as a nuclear waste dump more than 20 years ago. But President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are fast reversing that verdict.

Their goal is to kill a planned permanent nuclear waste repository in Nevada, not create one in Washington. But it’s the same difference.

Hanford, the nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington, is already saddled with thousands of tons of intensely radioactive reactor-core byproducts. All of it was supposed to be buried in bone-dry caves under Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Terminate the Yucca Mountain project, and you eliminate what was supposed to be the destination of Washington’s reactor wastes as well as wastes from more than 100 other reactor complexes across the United States.

As McClatchy Newspapers’ Les Blumenthal reported Monday, the Obama administration has no Plan B for Yucca Mountain.

Its “backup plan” consists of appointing a commission to mull things over and propose a new dump location sometime down the road – though the commission would be explicitly forbidden from reconsidering Nevada. No one has been appointed to this commission, but no matter: It’s all about political backside-covering in the first place.

History suggests that the loss of Yucca Mountain will effectively seal Hanford’s fate as a long-term host for deadly waste that has no business being there.

The federal government first started scouting for a disposal site in the 1950s. Hanford’s geology was studied for almost 20 years before it was ruled out. Yucca Mountain has been studied since 1983, at a cost – to electrical ratepayers – of more than $10 billion.

Yucca Mountain is isolated, arid, secure and well above the water table. As a repository, it may be as close to ideal as exists on the planet. If the most promising option in sight can be tossed out so cavalierly, for such transparently political reasons, by an administration that claims to exalt science over politics, there’s no reason to believe the next candidate site would survive either.

In any case, it would probably take another 25 or 30 years to bring a new candidate as far along as Yucca Mountain is now.

And Washington has already been storing the federal government’s reactor wastes for 65 years, since the Manhattan Project first started producing plutonium at Hanford during World War II. That’s more than a quarter of the United States’ entire existence.

Now the Obama administration has chosen to junk decades of geological studies and run away from the whole dilemma of high-level nuclear storage. That means the status quo is, in effect, Plan B. If this political sellout stands, Washington may need a new nickname. How about “The Hottest State in America”?

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