June 17, 2004

Wyden obtains Energy Dept. commitment to meet maximum cleanup standards forHanford Nuclear Waste Tanks

Senator wins assurance that plans to leave 10 percent of waste in tanks is "off the table," and agreement to clean 99 percent of waste will be honored

Washington, DC U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) today obtained a commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy that the agency will not attempt to weaken standards for cleaning up nuclear waste in tanks at Hanford, Wash. Under questioning from Wyden, Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management Jessie Roberson said that an Energy Department proposal to leave 10 percent of existing waste in the Hanford tanks far more than the one percent currently allowed under legal agreements is now "off the table." Wyden, along with his fellow Senators from the Pacific Northwest, has long pushed for maximum cleanup at Hanford to protect surrounding communities and the environment from radioactive contamination."Let me tell you unequivocally that it is off the table; it is our intent to comply with our Tri-Party Agreement," Roberson told Wyden, referring to the legal agreement among the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the State of Washington that requires 99 percent of Hanford's nuclear waste to be removed. "Ninety-nine percent is what we're living by."After further questioning, Wyden asked for the Energy Department to make the same commitment in writing, saying, "Our constituents want to know that. We want to know that there is no chance that you are going to reduce the amount of cleanup that our constituents are counting on."The Department of Energy's own estimates state that Hanford tanks have likely leaked one million gallons of nuclear waste. Environmental experts say that leaving more waste in tanks increases the risk of further contamination at the site. Additionally, semi-solid waste left in the bottom of tanks like those at Hanford typically has a higher concentration of radioactivity than liquid waste that is removed from the top of such tanks, increasing the risk to surrounding communities and the environment.Wyden has worked for well more than a decade to reduce the dangers of radioactive contamination at and around the Hanford site. In 1990, Congress enacted the Wyden Amendment establishing a watch list of potentially dangerous waste storage tanks at Hanford. The establishment of the Wyden Watch List began the process by which waste in each tank was systematically stabilized to reduce the risk of explosions at the site. By August 2001, it was determined that all tanks on the Wyden Watch List no longer posed a threat of catastrophic contamination.