By Eric M. Johnson
RICHLAND, Washington (Reuters) - The Department of Energy on Wednesday put forward a long-term plan to extract and ship low-level radioactive waste from leaking tanks at Washington state's Hanford Nuclear Reservation to a dump in New Mexico.
The announcement came two weeks after Washington Governor Jay Inslee publicly announced that six waste tanks were leaking at the World War Two-era nuclear weapons site, and coincided with a visit by the governor to Hanford.
The plan faces several regulatory hurdles and may require New Mexico to agree to accept the waste.
The Department of Energy (DoE) said on Wednesday its "preferred alternative" is to retrieve up to 3.1 million gallons (11.7 million liters) of radioactive waste sludge in up to 20 of Hanford's 177 tanks, stabilize it and truck it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for disposal.
Inslee, a Democrat who took office in January, said last week the six faulty tanks could leak about 1,000 gallons of radioactive sludge annually, and urged the federal government to curb the leakage and remove any escaped radioactive material.
The plan is likely to face opposition from New Mexico.
"The state of New Mexico's permit for WIPP specifically prohibits waste from Hanford, so any proposal to change that would need strong justification and public input," said Democratic Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico, in an emailed statement.
The 586-square-mile (1,518-square-km) Hanford Nuclear Reservation was established near the town of Hanford in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government program that developed the first atomic bombs.
Weapons production at the site resulted in more than 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste and 130 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Cleaning up the site is projected to cost the country almost $115 billion by the end of the century.
The DoE is constructing a plant at Hanford to mix the more radioactive wastes with molten glass to be buried underground in stainless steel canisters, although that will not be completed until the end of the decade.
The DoE's disposal plan announced on Wednesday would give the department "an option to deal with recent information about possible tank leaks and to expedite the overall tank waste retrieval effort at the Hanford Site," the DoE said in a statement, assuming it gained all necessary approvals.
The plan would likely take years to implement and deal with only a fraction of the waste produced at Hanford, but it was welcomed by Governor Inslee, who toured the site on Wednesday.
"Frankly, it's the only option other than just to allow this material to leak into the top soil of the state of Washington for decades - and that is totally unacceptable," Inslee told reporters at Hanford. "This will be on the federal government nickel, and that's appropriate."
Earlier this week, Inslee raised fears about the short-term funding for clean-up as automatic budget cuts in Washington will strip away $171 million for the project.
The plan announced on Wednesday faces some big challenges, said Dieter Bohrmann, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology.
Workers must first determine if the waste is transuranic, a classification of low-level radioactive waste that is accepted at WIPP. Then, the waste must be removed from the tanks and stabilized, likely by drying it or mixing it with grout.
Also, the DoE must designate the waste as "defense-related transuranic waste" and a number of regulatory requirements must be met on both sides of the transfer, said Deb Gill, a spokeswoman with the DoE's Carlsbad field office, which oversees WIPP.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson, Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)