Fate of Hanford, Wash., Nuclear Waste is in Political Flux

A major shift of political power on Capitol Hill has thrown into doubt the schedule for removing high-level nuclear waste from the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Dec. 13—A major shift of political power on Capitol Hill has thrown into doubt the schedule for removing high-level nuclear waste from the Hanford nuclear reservation.

About 30,000 tons of high-level waste from Hanford are to be buried in Nevada at Yucca Mountain, which federal officials hope to open in 2010. Waste stored there would be radioactive for 10,000 years.

Nevada's senior senator, Democrat Harry Reid, a staunch opponent of the proposed nuclear repository, became Senate Democratic leader last month, replacing Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who lost his bid for re-election.

Reid's ascent puts him in a far better position to stall or possibly kill the Yucca Mountain Project, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Sen. Harry Reid replaced Sen. Tom Daschle as minority leader in the U.S. Senate.

With Yucca Mountain's future uncertain, the final resting place for Hanford waste becomes a revolving target.

Although there is general agreement that nuclear-waste cleanup is a good thing, recent developments underscore the lack of consensus on where nuclear waste should ultimately be stored, and how it should get there.

At first glance, there may seem little connection between Hanford — considered the worst environmental mess in the Western Hemisphere — and Daschle's defeat on Nov. 2.

But U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, whose district includes Hanford, said he made the connection as soon as the polls closed on election night.

Daschle's loss meant the minority-leader position was suddenly vacant. Reid, who was Daschle's second in command, became the instant front-runner. He was elected minority leader by fellow Democrats on Nov. 16. Sen. Tom Daschle

Reid's rise and future opposition to Yucca Mountain could impact waste scheduled to be shipped out of Hanford.

"That was one of the first things I thought about when Daschle lost," Hastings said.

According to Hastings, opening Yucca Mountain as a nuclear-waste dump is a done deal. If Reid wants to tinker with the process, he does so at his own political peril.

High-level waste at Hanford is scheduled to be mixed with glass — a process called "vitrification" — and made into logs 14 feet long and 2 feet in diameter.

Nine thousand such logs are set to be transported to Yucca Mountain between 2013 and 2028.

Planners don't know whether the logs will be shipped by truck or train. In addition to opposing Yucca Mountain, the state of Nevada is against a proposed 320-mile rail extension to the site.

"To be sure, Harry Reid has more political clout by being named minority leader," Hastings said. "He will have to spend a lot of political capital if he wants to make this his No. 1 issue. He has lists of senators on his side who want Yucca Mountain open."

But Reid has shown no signs of letting up.

On Nov. 21, Reid announced his longtime aide on nuclear issues had been appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will make a final decision on whether to issue final permits for Yucca Mountain.

Reid has argued that scientific studies of Yucca Mountain are incomplete.

"I wouldn't say Yucca Mountain is a foregone conclusion," said Mike Wilson, nuclear-waste manager for the Washington state Department of Ecology. "We're in a wait-and-see posture."

However, the leader of a Hanford watchdog group says he is unconcerned about the future of Yucca Mountain.

Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, said he supports Reid's advancement because he agrees with the senator's position that states should have greater control over nuclear waste.

If Reid torpedoes Yucca Mountain, treated high-level waste would be safe at Hanford, Pollet said.

"I believe if Yucca Mountain is not safe, it shouldn't be open," Pollet said. "Glassified, high-level waste should stay at Hanford. That's the safest thing."

There is little agreement about Yucca Mountain within Washington state's congressional delegation.

In a 2002 vote, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray voted for a resolution approving Yucca Mountain as a national nuclear-waste repository. Seven House members from Washington state also supported the measure.

The state's other senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, voted against the Yucca Mountain resolution. At the time, Cantwell said there wouldn't be enough room in Yucca Mountain to handle Hanford's waste. She was joined by House Democrats Jim McDermott of Seattle and Adam Smith of Tacoma.

Uncertainty over Yucca Mountain raises other questions.

Government planners say they need definitive answers to begin plotting transportation routes from Hanford and other sites to a national repository.

There has been no decision on whether the material will travel by truck or train. Either way, most observers agree an accident would be a national catastrophe.

"This is all a crapshoot, and no one knows," said Tim Holeman, nuclear-waste manager at the Western Interstate Energy Board, a group of 12 Western states and three Canadian provinces charged with developing a system to transport radioactive materials.

"I can't tell you how Harry Reid's appointment would influence this matter. All I can tell you is there is a little more uncertainty," he said. "We have to plan for transportation now. We can't wait for the politicians to tell us."

With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expected to hold hearings on Yucca Mountain next year, state environmental officials say they will pay close attention to what happens in the other Washington.

"Everything is still in flux right now," said Wilson, of the state Ecology Department. "Everybody is in a wait-and-see mode."


1982: Congress establishes national policy to solve the problem of nuclear-waste disposal. Congress wants policy based on science.

1985: President Reagan approves three sites for extensive study, including Yucca Mountain, Nev., and Hanford.

1987: Congress directs Department of Energy to study only Yucca Mountain.

2002: U.S. Senate casts final vote approving development of Yucca Mountain.

2005: Nuclear Regulatory Commission expected to consider Yucca Mountain license application filed by Department of Energy.

2010: If approved, Yucca Mountain would begin to accept waste.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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