OP-ED COLUMN: A safe place for Hanford’s waste

May 15, 2018

A safe place for Hanford’s waste

May 11, 2018

By Greg Walden (R-Hood River)

For communities along the Columbia River, nuclear waste sitting at the Hanford Site remains a worrisome neighbor. Fifty-six million gallons of Cold War era toxic nuclear waste are sitting in corroding and leaking metal tanks. The threat of potential environmental disaster and pollution persists in the minds of Oregonians and people throughout the Pacific Northwest.

I was born in The Dalles and live in Hood River, so the Columbia River has always been part of my life. I know all too well the issues at Hanford and the slow cleanup from the federal government. We’ve even been misled at times, but, finally, it appears they’re making progress at the site.

As the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I’ve made cleaning up the waste at Hanford a top priority. That’s why I brought Energy Secretary Rick Perry out to Hanford to see firsthand the issues, and the progress towards turning that waste into the glass cylinders needed for final storage.

This progress is welcome news for all of us in the region, but successful cleanup requires a safe, secure and permanent storage location for those glass cylinders. That location is Yucca Mountain, deep in the Nevada desert.

Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress in 1978 to house spent nuclear fuel and the hazardous waste sitting at Hanford. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that nuclear material could be safely stored at Yucca Mountain for one million years -- isolated 1,000 feet underground. The science is clear. The environmental and economic benefits are widespread for the 121 communities across the country where nuclear waste sits idle.

Electricity consumers throughout the United States have paid the federal government more than $40 billion to develop, license, construct, and operate a nuclear waste repository Congress mandated under federal law. Oregon ratepayers have paid the Department of Energy more than $160 million to establish a permanent storage site for nuclear waste. Unfortunately, because of political efforts to hold up the project, there is little to show from our investment.

It’s well past time to move this project forward and fulfill the federal government’s promise to clean up Hanford and other sites. That’s why I worked to pass legislation through the House on a strong bipartisan vote (340-72) to reopen Yucca Mountain and finally get us back on track for a permanent storage location for this waste.

Our bill, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act, recognizes that Yucca Mountain is the most expeditious pathway for communities that store spent nuclear fuel -- like the Hanford Site -- to dispose of that waste. This bill -- which passed my committee 49-4 -- reinstates Yucca Mountain as the cornerstone of the nation’s nuclear waste disposal.

While nuclear energy produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, offers a low-cost power alternative for consumers, and supports our defense priorities, the federal government has missed the mark when disposing of the spent nuclear fuel from commercially generated nuclear power and defense-level nuclear waste. Our bill will ensure this waste has a permanent repository so that we can improve the role nuclear power plays in our energy mix and defensive capabilities. We also reform the broken financing mechanism to protect ratepayers and ensure DOE has adequate funding to construct and operate a multi-generational repository project.

This legislation fulfills the federal government’s legal obligation to clean up nuclear waste in our communities. Perhaps more importantly, our plan fulfills the federal government’s moral obligation as well.

While the nuclear waste challenge has vexed policy makers for generations, we are moving forward in a bipartisan way to successfully build a durable solution. The nuclear waste sitting idle at Hanford, and in 39 states across the country, is destined for permanent storage at the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada. This legislation -- when approved by the Senate -- will make that happen.

Click here to read the column online.