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Hauling more nuclear waste to Hanford from other states

Nuclear-waste talks being held in private between U.S Dept. of Energy and Washington state. Environmental activists are worried.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer


May. 20 - The fate of thousands of truckloads of radioactive and hazardous waste potentially destined for Eastern Washington is being hashed out between state and federal regulators in closed-door discussions.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants to haul radioactive debris from nuclear-cleanup projects nationwide for permanent and temporary disposal at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The action is needed, Energy Department authorities say, to finish other cleanup projects around the country.

Officials with Gov. Gary Locke's office and the Ecology Department are in discussions over the conditions of how existing and incoming waste will be handled and stored.

The talks have outraged a local watchdog group and prompted a letter from Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., urging the state not to agree to take the waste.

"It would be a major mistake to allow the importation of nuclear waste ... in exchange for a simple affirmation that the (Energy Department) will comply with its existing legal obligations," Inslee wrote in a letter Tuesday addressed to Locke, his chief of staff, Tom Fitzsimmons, and the head of Ecology.

State and Energy Department officials say the talks are being mischaracterized.

We are "not in process of trying to make any sort of quid pro quo deal," Fitzsimmons said. Rather, the state is providing its input to the Energy Department on plans for importing waste.

"The suggestion that deals are being cut behind closed doors is just really not fair," he said.

"Addressing the concerns of the state of Washington and the state of Oregon is what we ought to be doing," said Colleen Clark, an Energy spokeswoman.

Up to 70,000 truckloads, or about 12.7 million cubic feet of waste, would be driven across the country. The debris includes items such as clothing, tools and soil contaminated with dangerous chemicals and long-lived radioactive material -- including plutonium -- known as transuranic waste.

Considering all of the dangerous waste already buried at Hanford, "they would more than double the amount of radioactive waste," said Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a watchdog group.

But Ecology officials argue that a compromise is possible in which some waste does come to the site temporarily or for permanent burial with assurances of faster cleanup and the end of the use of unlined trenches that could allow dangerous materials to leak into the soil.

"We have never blocked the idea of shipments to Hanford," said Sheryl Hutchison, an Ecology spokeswoman. "We wanted to tie it to cleanup."

The talks are over the language of a record of decision being completed by the Energy Department. It is the final result of an environmental impact statement released in January.

Hutchison and Fitzsimmons said the public has had numerous opportunities to weigh in on the issue and that many actions that arise from the record of decision will be subject to further public comment.

The Washington Attorney General's Office hasn't taken a position on the talks, but David Mears, chief of the office's ecology division, said the Energy Department still needs to make the case that it's essential to the cleanup effort nationally that more waste comes to the former bombing-making site. The state and watchdog groups are still fighting the Energy Department in federal court over the importing of transuranic waste. For approximately four months beginning in December 2002, the Energy Department trucked this kind of waste into Hanford until stopping the shipments in March 2003, around the time the suits were filed. The sides disagree over whether the state has authority over the shipments.

Other types of waste are still being imported to Hanford.

Also at question is whether the talks could undermine Initiative 297, which would prohibit importing more waste until current waste storage is improved and brought into line with regulations. The measure, which will be on the November ballot, bans the use of unlined trenches, creates an advisory board to oversee waste issues and requires disclosure of waste budget information.

"It's clear to us that the Energy Department motivation here is to try to deflect I-297 or to have the state strike a deal and issue permits before I-297 takes effect," said Pollet, whose organization is a primary supporter of the initiative.

It's unclear whether the record of decision would trump the initiative should it pass.

Fitzsimmons said the concerns are moot.

"It isn't connected," he said. "The initiative is a separate process."


P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or  lisastiffler@seattlepi.com

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