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“This has to be based on data and science and technology and we cannot allow politics to guide what we do.” – Gov. Christine Gregoire

By Steve Hedges
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire says she’s been dealing with the issue of nuclear waste for more than 20 years, and she has the logic down cold.

As she told President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future Thursday, there are a few key principles to her formula.

First, there’s science. Then there’s technology. And then there is politics – two kinds. There is politics with a “Big P,” she said, and politics with a “Little P.”

Politics with a “Little P” means working with the local community to win acceptance for a plan for treating nuclear waste.

It’s the “Big P” politics that causes the problems, Gregoire told the commission. And it’s “Big P” politics, Gregoire implied, that has led to the Obama administration’s decision to shut down the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.

Gregoire didn’t say that directly. But during her talk with the commissioners it was hard to miss her inference.

Yucca was authorized by Congress, she said, but it has been, “taken away for reasons I don’t know and I don’t understand. The reason we’ve lost trust on that is that we don’t’ know if it’s based on science and technology. We have spent billions of dollars. We have prepared Hanford waste to go to Yucca.

“When we allow politics or anything else to get involved, we lose the trust of the people of Washington. This has to be based on data and science and technology and we cannot allow politics to guide what we do.”

Hanford, Washington, a center of U.S. military nuclear production, is sitting on thousands of tons of nuclear waste. The people of Hanford and Washington, Gregoire said, have been planning on moving that waste and cleaning up Hanford’s soil for years.

Those hopes rested on the construction of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which Congress designated in 1987 as the nation’s nuclear waste repository.

So it was notable that the Blue Ribbon Commission, formed earlier this year to examine waste storage alternatives, held two days of hearings at Hanford.
Hanford , in south central Washington, was established in 1943 to build weapons grade plutonium, and it did so throughout the Cold War until 1989. The biggest worry there is 149 single-cell underground storage tanks filled with liquid waste generated by the process of making plutonium for nuclear weapons. More than 40 of those tanks are “leakers,” Gregoire said.

During her talk, Gregoire’s primary focus was on the long-running state-federal partnership to clean up Hanford. But with speaker after speaker at the commission’s Hanford hearing focused on the decision by Obama, press by Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada democrat and the current Senate majority leader, to shut Yucca down.

In turn, the hearing showed the ripple effect that closing Yucca will have on the communities where reactors have been running and producing energy and where waste has been accumulating and stored, all in the belief that the Congressionally-mandated Yucca repository would one day be available.

Right now nuclear waste is stored at more than 100 reactor sites while states waited for Yucca.

DOE, which was charged by Congress to build Yucca, earlier this year called it, “unworkable,” but has yet to provide scientific data to support that assessment.

Reid’s opposition is based on the premise that Yucca is too close to Las Vegas, and that a leak or an incident involving nuclear material being transported to Yucca will damage Las Vegas and Nevada’s tourism industry.

But Gregoire and several other witnesses before the Blue Ribbon Commission on Wednesday and Thursday noted that the selection of Yucca has been a 20-year long process, and that other sites – including Hanford – were considered before Congress settled on Yucca.

Upon learning of administration efforts to close Yucca, Washington, South Carolina, the counties of Aiken, S.C. and White Pine, Nev., as well as an association of utility commissioners have sued to keep it open.
Gregoire, in fact, told the commission Thursday that she has personally been involved in negotiations with DOE to clean up Hanford for two decades as director of the state’s environmental agency,  its attorney general and now its governor.

She noted that DOE is half-way done with a $12.3 billion waste treatment plant that will vitrify weapons waste to specifications designed for storage in Yucca. If Yucca is cancelled, she said, that will put the waste treatment plant’s mission in limbo.

"I don’t have any confidence that we’ll pick another (deep disposal) site anytime soon, and even then, the process will take years," Gregoire said. "Hanford cannot wait."

Waste in seven Hanford storage tanks has been removed – no simple feat, she said, given the fact that no one knew how to handle that waste beforehand.

The present danger, Gregoire and other speakers reminded the commission, is that leaking tanks are spreading in underground plumes that threaten the nearby Columbia River, one of the West’s vital waterways. Hanford stretches along 51 miles of Columbia River bank.

“We’ve got to get those tanks emptied,” Gregoire said. “There’s a plume that’s headed toward the Columbia River. We’ve got to stop it. We don’t know how to stop it.”

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