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Saying no to nuclear waste. Washington State voters are expected to oppose selection of Hanford for new A-dump

Richland has become what it is today -- a bustling little city in the remote desert of southeast Washington -- because of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The two grew up together in the 1940s, when the federal government first established the reservation for top-secret production of plutonium for the first atomic bombs.

During the next 30 years, as Hanford expanded its activities to include nonmilitary nuclear research, nuclear power production, and storage of low-level radioactive wastes, Richland expanded along with it.

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City leaders now see opportunity for more expansion if the US Department of Energy (DOE) chooses Hanford to be the nation's first burial site for high-level radioactive waste.

But elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, public officials and private groups see their region becoming a ``national sacrifice area,'' the potentially lethal dumping ground for 70,000 tons of spent fuel from the nation's commercial nuclear reactors and about 10,000 more from weapons-production facilities. Opposition has been intensifying in recent months, ever since federal officials announced in May that Hanford is one of three finalists on the DOE's list.

Now, Hanford's future nuclear role has become one of the top issues in Tuesday's election:

Washingtonians are expected to vote overwhelmingly against the nuclear repository in a ballot referendum. The advisory measure would urge the state's leadership to do everything it can to prevent the DOE from selecting Hanford.

The US Senate race between incumbent Slade Gorton (R) and challenger Brock Adams (D) may hinge on which candidate can convince voters he will do the most to discourage siting of the new nuclear repository in the state.

Across the Columbia River in Oregon, voters are being asked to approved shutting down the state's only nuclear power plant until the federal government selects a permanent repository for the waste. The measure has no direct connection to DOE's siting plans for the repository. But nuclear industry officials are concerned that public dismay over Hanford's inclusion on the DOE list could influence voters to nix nuclear power altogether in the state.

The major complaint here is that Hanford was selected for political, rather than scientific, reasons. In the Reagan administration's rush to open a site within 13 years, in compliance with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983, the 570-square-mile complex was put on the list solely because it's already a federal reservation, critics say.

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They add that what is most important is whether Hanford can pass the technical requirements that are intended safely to contain the radioactive waste for at least 10,000 years.

Scientific data are needed now to determine Hanford's suitability, says Neal J. Shulman, Richland's city manager. He would like to see the DOE push ahead on a study - called site characterization - that would examine the deep geological formations where the waste would be entombed.

``If people here fear the decision is not being made on a scientific basis, then they would be upset,'' Mr. Shulman says. ``Only if it is safe and technically sound would people want it here.''

The study, which would bring in $1 billion in federal money over five years, would be a boost to the local economy. The Tri-Cities area - comprising 140,000 people in Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco - was hard hit when the Washington Public Power Supply System canceled construction of two nuclear-power plants at Hanford.

In Seattle, however, Jim Beard of Greenpeace says that the DOE will be defying Congress if it goes ahead with the Hanford study. The Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, recently cut in half this year's funding for the project with the intention of halting site characterization at Hanford.

Public concern over the nuclear repository has started to spread to other DOE activities at Hanford as well, Mr. Beard says. ``DOE's credibility in this area is completely shot,'' he says. The following incidents have dogged the DOE during the past year:

The Center for Disease Control and a Washington State panel found that Hanford has had effects on public health during its 43-year history. They recommended studies be done to determine the scope of the impact.

DOE tried to bring spent fuel rods from Taiwan into the country for storage at Hanford. The move was opposed by the state. DOE later backed down and shipped the waste to South Carolina.

Critics contend that there are major similarities in design between the nuclear reactor at Hanford, which is used in the production of plutonium, and the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union.

Two Hanford plants that process plutonium for weapons were shut down earlier this month. The DOE closed the plants after an audit revealed a number of safety violations by employees at Rockwell Hanford Operations, a DOE contractor.

DOE spokeswoman Karen Wheeless says an accident at Hanford like the one that occurred at Chernobyl is ``a physical impossibility.'' In addition, the shutdown of the two plants points to the DOE's determination that ``we're going to operate our facilities safely, or not at all,'' she says.