Want to clean up Hanford? Finish Yucca Mountain

June 27, 2017

Nuclear energy has played an integral role in generating electricity in the United States for decades. This reliable energy source is responsible for generating 20 percent of electricity across the country, providing low-cost power for consumers throughout the United States. In 2016, 30 states operated nuclear reactors for electricity and six of those states relied on nuclear power for the majority of their electricity generation.

Importantly, nuclear energy produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, 553 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were avoided by the nuclear industry throughout the United States – making it one of the cleanest forms of energy in the country.

Nuclear energy is a clean and efficient part of our nation’s overall energy mix and it supports our national defense priorities. However, the federal government has dropped the ball when it comes to disposing of the necessary byproduct of nuclear activities — spent nuclear fuel from commercially generated nuclear power and high-level waste from our nation’s defense activities. As a result, spent nuclear fuel currently sits idle in 121 communities and 39 states across the country, creating significant potential environmental concerns.

The Hanford Site, located about 40 miles north of my district on the Columbia River in Washington State, produced plutonium for nuclear weapons for over 40 years for America’s defense program. Since the creation of the Manhattan Project, the federal government has been responsible for cleaning up high-level radioactive waste from sites across the country like Hanford that are storing the waste from our nation’s nuclear weapons development and the spent fuel generated from our navy’s nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion systems.

The Hanford site was deactivated in 1987 and in 1989 the Department of Energy’s mission to clean up the waste began. Twenty-eight years later, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel remains at the site in dry storage and millions of gallons of high-level waste awaits disposal. The recent cave-in at Hanford is just the latest cause for concern. While nobody was injured and there has been no evidence of contamination, it doesn’t take away the fact that this material clearly needs to be moved to a permanent disposal facility.

The waste currently sitting at the Hanford site is engineered by design to be sent to the Yucca Mountain permanent geological repository facility in the Nevada desert. Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress in 1987 to house both spent nuclear fuel and the kind of high-level waste found at Hanford. At Yucca Mountain, these materials would be safely isolated 1,000 feet underground. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the site could safely store this nuclear material for one million years.

Oregon ratepayers, through a fee tied to the electricity generated from nuclear energy, have already paid the Department of Energy over $160 million to finance the costs associated with the development of a permanent repository to dispose of spent nuclear fuel. Washingtonians have paid an additional $872 million in this effort. All told, taxpayers around the country have paid more than $40 billion to permanently dispose of spent nuclear fuel and the high-level nuclear waste like that found at Hanford.

Despite the safety and environmental benefits and billions of dollars taxpayers and ratepayers across the country have already invested, the Obama administration halted Yucca Mountain from moving forward and tried to permanently prevent the project from being completed.

As chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I’ve directed our team to address these problems. We’ve done our homework too. Dating back to 2011, the committee has conducted rigorous oversight, held several hearings examining all aspects of nuclear waste policy, and some of our members even traveled to Yucca Mountain for a first-hand look at the geologic repository. Now it’s time to act.

Our resulting legislation, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, recognizes that Yucca Mountain is the most expeditious pathway for communities around the country that store defense high-level waste — like the Hanford Site — to dispose of that waste. The bill reinstates Yucca Mountain as the cornerstone of our nuclear waste disposal while also allowing private interim storage projects to move forward for the first time — a concept that would temporarily hold commercial nuclear waste until Yucca Mountain is ready to receive shipments.

The recent incident at Hanford could have been a lot worse. It’s time for the Department of Energy to fulfill their legal obligation to dispose of this waste to assure nothing worse happens. Thankfully, we’re working towards a durable solution at the Energy and Commerce Committee and rest assured, we will get this waste consolidated and safely stored in its permanent home in Yucca Mountain.


Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, represents Oregon’s second congressional district, which includes 20 counties in central, southern and eastern Oregon.