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Washington state to vote on nuclear waste

Washington state residents will vote on whether to bar the federal government from shipping nuclear waste to the Hanford nuclear site until all the existing waste there is cleaned up.
Crews have been working for years to clean up contaminated soil at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. Jackie Johnston / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Supporters call an initiative on the Washington state ballot a no-brainer: bar the federal government from shipping nuclear waste to the Hanford nuclear site until all the existing waste there is cleaned up.

But opponents of Initiative 297 argue that interfering with the Energy Department’s national plan for nuclear waste disposal could spell doom, especially if other states follow Washington’s lead and ban Hanford waste.

The 586-square-mile facility in south-central Washington, which was created decades ago as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, remains the most contaminated site in the nation.

At issue is the federal government’s plans for disposing of waste from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production nationwide. The Energy Department chose Hanford to dispose of some mildly radioactive waste and mixed low-level waste.

State lawmakers declined
Initiative 297 would block the Energy Department from sending more waste to Hanford until the existing waste at the site is cleaned up. A citizens’ petition sent the initiative to the Legislature early this year. Lawmakers declined to act on it, sending the measure to the ballot.

Gerald Pollet, executive director of the Hanford watchdog group Heart of America Northwest and sponsor of the initiative, said voters would be foolhardy not to adopt a standard to protect themselves from more contamination at Hanford.

“Don’t add more waste to a site that has leaking landfills or hazardous waste that isn’t stored in compliance with existing standards,” Pollet said.

The Energy Department has taken no position on the initiative.

Hanford already is home to 53 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid, sludge and saltcake stored in 177 underground tanks. The Energy Department aims to bury much of that waste in a nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Another 75,000 55-gallon drums of less hazardous waste also are buried at Hanford.

“It’s clear that Hanford has a role to play in accepting a small volume of waste so that other DOE sites can close, but at the same time, Hanford stands to benefit tenfold by shipping all of its high-level waste, spent fuel and plutonium waste to other repositories,” said Colleen French, spokeswoman for the Energy Department’s Richland office.

Volume debated
Heart of America Northwest has argued that the Energy Department’s waste disposal plan will amount to 70,000 truckloads of waste entering the state. The Energy Department estimated about 5,800 truckloads of waste would enter the state.

The Energy Department also has pledged to cap the amount of additional low-level and mixed low-level waste that could be brought into the state and disposed of at Hanford at about 107,000 cubic yards.

Opponents argue the waste shipments to Hanford amount to rolling dirty bombs. On a recent sunny morning, two initiative supporters argued against the Energy Department’s plans beside a bright-yellow, 15-foot balloon meant to represent the barrels of radioactive waste that could travel cross-country by truck.

“We’re not saying not in my backyard,” said Robert Pregulman, executive director of the Washington Public Interest Research Group. “We’re just saying not in my backyard until you clean my backyard first.”

Other states have battled the federal government’s program for disposing of nuclear waste.

For years, Nevada has been fighting plans to build a national waste repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas that would hold all the nation’s high-level waste. And in New Mexico, where the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad will take Hanford’s hazardous trash, the federal government agreed at the urging of state officials not to send high-level waste there.