Hanford Site Nuclear Waste Clean-Up

Date: March 11th, 2016

Topic: Solid & Hazardous Waste

Type: Lawsuit vs. Federal Government

Jurisdiction: Oregon, Washington

The Hanford Site is home to world’s first full-scale plutonium production facility, and it is the origin of most of the plutonium in the United States’ nuclear arsenal. It is also currently the site of the world’s largest environmental clean-up with approximately 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, many of which are leaking and contaminating nearby groundwater. There is also a threat of contamination of the Columbia River which runs through the site on its way to Oregon and the Pacific Ocean. The cleanup is under the direction of the Washington Department of Ecology (Washington), the Department of Energy (DOE), and EPA, pursuant to a 1989 consent decree known as the Tri-Party Agreement (Agreement) which outlines the parties’ legal responsibilities and sets certain cleanup and processing milestones.

In March of 2003, the state of Washington filed suit against DOE, alleging that it was shipping transuranic waste, i.e. artificially made radioactive substances with higher atomic numbers than uranium, to Hanford from another site in Ohio after it chose Hanford as a regional disposal site. The complaint alleged that the shipments were in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as well as in violation of Washington Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA). The court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining DOE from shipping any transuranic waste to the site. In 2004, DOE released a final Environmental Impact Statement and two records of decision relating to the shipment of transuranic waste to the site. The court later extended the preliminary injunction banning the further shipment of mixed transuranic waste, i.e. radioactive waste mixed with non-radioactive hazardous waste, to the site, finding that this was in violation of the HWMA storage prohibition. The court further granted a preliminary injunction preventing DOE from shipping additional “low level” and “mixed low-level” waste to Hanford. However, the court did remove the preliminary injunction on the NEPA claim for shipping non-mixed transuranic waste. In a related appeal brought in 2009, the 9th Circuit affirmed that mixed transuranic waste that is ultimately designated for storage at another site but is currently stored at Hanford may still be subject to the HWMA.

Washington again filed suit against DOE in November of 2008, alleging that DOE failed in its obligation to meet some of the milestones in the Agreement relating to retrieval and treatment of the waste in the underground tanks. Oregon also intervened in that suit due to its interest with respect to the Columbia River. The suit settled in 2010 with the parties agreeing to amend the Agreement to establish two new primary milestones and 22 interim milestones, as well as reporting requirements for DOE. Shortly after the settlement, DOE provided notice that it was at risk of missing additional milestones, and the parties petitioned the court to again amend the Agreement. The court denied DOE’s petition to remove the Agreement’s deadlines, finding that it was an essential part of the bargain, but granted the other parties petitions to add additional reporting requirements.

The “high-level” waste at the site was originally supposed to be shipped to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and stored there indefinitely. When the DOE moved to withdraw its licensing application from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Washington and South Carolina intervened, and successfully blocked that action. The states were also successful in a later suit seeking a writ of mandamus forcing the NRC to continue with the licensing process.

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