Washington Nuclear Waste Will Have To Wait To Move To New Mexico
Sandia Senior Fellow Wendell Weart examines a chunk of salt at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). On March 26, 1999, WIPP's first waste was carried down this access drift.
Randy Montoya
July 09, 2013
Randy Montoya
Sandia Senior Fellow Wendell Weart examines a chunk of salt at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). On March 26, 1999, WIPP's first waste was carried down this access drift.

The New Mexico Environment Department announced this week it will hold public hearings on a request to store new radioactive waste in the state. Currently, nuclear waste leaking from storage in Washington at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation needs a home, and officials at the Department of Energy have identified the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP for short) in Carlsbad, NM as a possible new resting place.

Designed to "permanently dispose of the nation's defense-related transuranic radioactive waste," WIPP was seen two decades ago as an economic boost to Carlsbads struggling economy.

Proponents of taking Washington's waste say WIPP will continue to provide jobs to the community for the foreseeable future. Opponents say the stuff is hazardous and could be spilled in communities anywhere between the Northwest coast and southern New Mexico.

Besides public input, another problem for proponents of the move is transuranic versus high level waste, or what WIPP can actually handle.
As part of the early negotiations between the state and the DOE, it was agreed that only transuranic, or TRU, waste consisting mainly of contaminated tools, clothing, soil and sludge would be allowed at WIPP. Transuranic waste is less radioactive than High Level Waste, which comes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. WIPP is not equipped to handle HLW.
Anna King of Northwest News Network explains here what transuranic waste is.
Transuranic waste has a lot of very long-lived radionuclides with higher numbers on the periodic table than uranium – think that special little box on the periodic table under the big one you studied in high school. Some radioactive stuff in it has a half-life of 24,000 years. That means this waste will be dangerous for a long time, longer than a lot of the other waste at Hanford.
And if you're imagining green ooze similar to what you might have seen in a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon, think again. According to reporter Elaine Baumgartel, the stuff mainly consists of "tools, clothing, soil and sludge".

Now, High Level Waste? According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission it comes from used reactor fuel and waste materials remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed.

Spent nuclear fuel is used fuel from a reactor that is no longer efficient in creating electricity, because its fission process has slowed. However, it is still thermally hot, highly radioactive, and potentially harmful. Until a permanent disposal repository for spent nuclear fuel is built, licensees must safely store this fuel at their reactors.
Because Hanford is a former plutonium production site, much, but not all, of its waste is High Level Waste, and it's leaking into the ground.
The cleanup of the site involves more than 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste in 177 underground storage tanks, and about 25 million cubic feet (750,000 cubic meters) of buried or stored solid waste, as well as spent nuclear fuel, and plutonium in various forms. Toward that end, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of River Protection (ORP) , has the mission to retrieve and treat Hanford’s tank waste and close its tank farms to protect the Columbia River.

Remember, transuranic waste is what WIPP can handle now, and Hanford has been managing its leaky tanks as High Level Waste. And as of 2004, transporting Hanford tank waste to WIPP has been banned in New Mexico.

To get around this, the Department of Energy asked the state to get rid of its ban on transporting waste from tanks at Hanford. In response, the state's Environment Department will try to get more public input by categorizing the request a Class 3 instead of a Class 2.

“Elevating this permit modification to the Class 3 level will ensure the public’s views are carefully considered before a final decision on the modification request is made,” said NMED Secretary-Designate Ryan Flynn. “The Environment Department will ensure the regulatory process is transparent and fair to all of the interested parties, and our ultimate decision on this modification request will be science-based.”
Which the Albuquerque Journal reports translates this way:
In response, the Environment Department announced Monday afternoon that its answer was neither “yes” nor “no” to the proposal. Instead, it invoked a rule that triggers a potentially lengthy public hearing process before any decision can be made.
Put one more way: Hanford's nuclear waste will stay in Washington for up to another year before a final decision is made.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the issue was one of transportation, and not necessarily specific waste at Hanford.