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U.S., Washington State Reach Accord on Nuclear Cleanup

Officials set dates for the Energy Department to remove tons of waste at Hanford; issues remain.

October 26, 2003|From Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. — State officials and the U.S. Department of Energy agreed on a schedule to clean up radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation, settling a years-long dispute over the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.

Under the agreement, the Energy Department must retrieve the less-radioactive waste stored underground by 2010. The more highly radioactive waste, which can be handled only by robots, must be retrieved by 2018.

Overall, the Energy Department will treat the equivalent of several hundred thousand barrels of radioactive trash.

Linda Hoffman, interim director of the state Department of Ecology, called the agreement reached Friday a "tremendous win for Hanford and the people of Washington."

Keith Klein, manager of the Energy Department's Richland office, called the deal "a real breakthrough."

The agreement will not become final until the parties consult with the area's Indian tribes and the Hanford Advisory Board and consider comments from the public.

The state and federal governments had spent the last several years negotiating the deadlines.

Still unresolved is whether the state has jurisdiction to regulate transuranic waste, one of the issues at the heart of the disagreement. Both sides have agreed that question should be decided by a federal court.

Transuranic waste is typically plutonium-contaminated trash, such as discarded protective gear, tools and equipment, that is highly radioactive and can take thousands of years to decay to safe radiation levels.

The Energy Department wants to truck transuranic waste from other sites for inspection and repacking at Hanford before shipping the barrels off to New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Hanford accepted about 40 barrels of transuranic waste from Ohio and California before Washington state sued in March to stop the shipments. The lawsuit demanded specific written plans for ensuring that both the transuranic waste already buried at Hanford and the imported waste would move on to New Mexico.

Gov. Gary Locke had said he feared the Energy Department would turn Hanford into a nuclear waste dump. The Energy Department voluntarily suspended shipments of out-of-state waste to Hanford when the lawsuit was filed. A federal judge then barred the department from sending radioactive trash to Hanford until the two sides could resolve the dispute.

The 586-square-mile reservation, set up as part of the effort to build an atom bomb during World War II, is heavily contaminated after 40 years of making plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

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