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Federal judge sets new deadlines for nuclear waste cleanup
Spent nuclear fuel stored underwater and uncapped in Hanford's K-East Basin. Image: United States Department of Energy.

Federal judge sets new deadlines for nuclear waste cleanup

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A federal judge has set new deadlines for cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, after Washington state went to court to prod the U.S. Department of Energy over the flagging efforts.

U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson issued the new deadlines in a 102-page order late Friday. Among them: A plant designed to treat low-activity radioactive waste must begin operating by 2022, and a plant to convert the most dangerous waste into glass for burial must be fully operating by 2036.

Washington and Oregon sued the U.S. Energy Department nearly a decade ago over missed cleanup deadlines, and after a settlement, Washington went back to court in 2014, leading to the judge’s order Friday.

Peterson criticized the Energy Department for what she described as a “total lack of transparency” as to the delays. She said that if the department had kept the states better apprised of the status of the cleanup efforts, the states could have sought further funding from Congress to help avert delays.

“The passage of time and the urgency of waste clean-up are inextricably linked: the longer that DOE takes to satisfy its obligations under the Consent Decree the greater the likelihood of irreversible damage to the environment,” the judge wrote. “No party can ‘win’ this litigation. The public and environment only can ‘lose’ as more time passes without an operational solution to the radioactive waste problems at the Hanford Site.”

The government used the Hanford site during World War II and the Cold War to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Hanford’s 586 square miles house over 50 million gallons of nuclear waste in 177 underground tanks, many of which are leaking.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson welcomed the court’s ruling, which they said in a written statement Saturday will hold federal authorities accountable for the cleanup and which set firmer deadlines than the Energy Department wanted.

“Cleaning up the legacy waste at Hanford is the federal government’s legal and moral responsibility to the Tri-Cities community and the Pacific Northwest,” Inslee said. “I have been repeatedly frustrated by the delays and lack of progress toward meeting key milestones in waste cleanup and treatment. We cannot consider any further delays, and I am pleased that the court clearly agrees.”

The court did not immediately require the Energy Department to build additional double-shell tanks to store waste currently held in leak-prone single-shell tanks, the statement noted. However, the court did say that if the federal government misses an interim 2020 milestone for single-shell tanks under the consent decree, Washington can ask the court to require the feds to build additional double-shell tanks.

In related news, Feds seek borehole test for potential hot nuclear waste burial.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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