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Beyond Yucca: Experts Question Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant

The Obama Administration says it plans to appoint a blue ribbon panel soon to determine the fate of the nation's radioactive waste.

For years now the waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been destined for a deep hole in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But as he promised in his campaign, President Obama stripped funding for Yucca. 

Now, Hanford officials are wondering where all the high-level waste in Washington State will go.  Anna King reports.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 53 million gallons of radioactive sludge and chemicals. Right now that witch's brew is held in leak-prone, underground tanks just miles from the Columbia River. 

The plan is to turn that gunk into 15-foot glass logs.

We're here at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's glass lab in Richland. A lab technician is using a metal spatula to break up a piece of blue-green glass that's cooling.

Gary Smith is one of the scientists looking for just the right glass that will bind up Hanford's radioactive sludge.

He says it's like matching a lock and key. You have to have the right kind of glass for the environment that you plan to put it in.

Gary Smith: "Lot of engineering. So you have to understand the geologic environment and then tailor your waste forms, and engineered containers and systems to contain the waste."

Anna King: "So one depends on the other."

Gary Smith: "Yeah. The site that you pick dictates what you want to do with the waste form, the containers, the engineered barriers, etc."  

Well, here's the problem. For years, scientists like Smith have been working to tailor their glass to match the environment of Yucca Mountain. 

The government has spent billions dollars so far studying Yucca. And Hanford's building a $12.2 billion glass making plant. Blue prints have been drawn. Concrete has been poured.

All for a plant that now might not be designed to make the right kind of glass.

That's because under the Obama administration it looks like Yucca Mountain is not going to be the national nuclear waste repository any longer. And if not Yucca, where?

This uncertainty prompted Congressman Doc Hastings to write a letter to the administration, asking where is the promised blue ribbon panel?

The Washington Republican says Secretary Chu said last spring the work would start immediately. 

Doc Hastings: "Well, we are obviously now well into the administration and we have seen absolutely no activity on when this blue ribbon commission is going to be picked, or who's going to be on it, or what they are going to look at when the commission is formed."

Hastings says it's folly to wait. He estimates that it will take a blue ribbon panel at least two years to come to any consensus or decision — and then those options will have to be studied.

That's fine with state officials in Nevada. Marta Adams is the state's chief deputy attorney general. She's been fighting against Yucca Mountain for more than 10 years. She says the site was chosen because Nevada was politically weak at the time.

Marta Adams: "Come to Nevada and we're going to stick it in the ground where there's active volcanoes and more water than they ever imagined. I mean it's just crazy. I don't know the answer, but I do know that Yucca Mountain is not the place to put it."

Adam's cause got a big boost when Nevada's Senator Harry Reid became majority leader and an important supporter of President Obama.

But finding another nuclear repository beyond Nevada's borders is a political hot potato. What state wants to become a repository for the nation's nuclear waste?

Not Washington State according to Tom Carpenter, from the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

Tom Carpenter: "What happens if Hanford becomes the offsite waste repository? Even though we are the de-facto repository for some types of waste, we should not become the repository for the rest of the nation's waste as well. This is not the right place for that."

This tension has made for strange bedfellows. Critics like Carpenter and Hanford officials rarely agree. But they do on this next point.

Erik Olds is from the Department of Energy. He says policy makers and workers at Hanford have to keep their eye on the near-term goal.

Erik Olds: "The risk today is the waste in the tanks. The waste is sitting in tanks, some of them were constructed in the early 1940s. They were never meant to be a long term storage solution or storage units for this type of material. We need to get the waste out of those tanks and we need to get it immobilized in a high quality waste form like glass as soon as possible. And when it's in glass it can't easily move out into the environment."

Back at the glass lab in Richland, scientists continue their trials. And at Hanford's vitrification plant, construction workers keep building the facility to convert 53-million gallons of waste into glass logs.

But where all this glass will go isn't exactly clear.