Aging Defense Waste Storage Sites and Cleanup Efforts in States

States are currently grappling with the cleanup of Cold War era, defense waste sites across the country. Leaking underground storage tanks of nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in February 2013 underscore the  urgency of resolving these long-term challenges in a timely manner before additional risk placed on the public However, Washington’s current fiscal problems and the heightened sensitivity of transporting and storing waste do not lend easy or immediate solutions. 

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The Department of Energy confirmed in February 2013 that six underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington were leaking, with one tank estimated to be seeping 150 to 300 gallons of nuclear waste per year.1 Gov. Jay Inslee reassured the public in a statement there was no immediate public safety threat, but the troubles at what is widely considered the nation’s most contaminated defense waste site underscores the burden placed on states and communities dealing with the remediation and cleanup of facilities that helped win the Cold War. It also adds more urgency for a federal strategy on interim storage of waste as well as additional funding to help remediate and cleanup these aging sites—a prospect that will prove difficult given Washington’s current and long-term fiscal challenges. Letters from the Department of Energy (DOE) to governors warning of possible furloughs and layoffs of federal personnel due to the sequester have raised concerns that remediation of defense-waste sites may take even longer to complete an already lengthy cleanup process.2

Nuclear Waste, Defense Waste and States

  • In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which directed DOE to develop and construct a permanent repository to store the nation’s nuclear waste—both commercial waste generated from power plants and defense waste.3
  • Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1987 and selected Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the permanent storage site. It established a timetable for shipments of nuclear waste to begin arriving in 1998—a deadline that clearly has lapsed and is the subject of intense political scrutiny and debate.
  • This long delay generated lawsuits from states that have defense waste sites and utilities because the federal government was supposed to take ownership of the waste.
  • Total volumes of civilian and defense nuclear waste already exceed the statutory cap of 70,000 tons that could have been sent to Yucca Mountain. Nationwide, an estimated 250 tanks are storing roughly 2,500 tons of defense waste at federal facilities.4

The Hanford Site

  • The 586 square mile Hanford site, located just five miles from the Columbia River, has 177 storage tanks that store more than 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste.
  • Originally constructed in 1943 by the War Department, the site housed reactors and processing facilities that became the world’s first plutonium plant and provided the fuel used in the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Notable scientists like Enrico Fermi supervised the work performed by more than 50,000 people—many of whom had no idea what was being constructed.5
  • A series of presidents, beginning with Harry Truman, expanded the size and scope of the facility as the technological needs and capabilities required of the nuclear arsenal changed during the Cold War.
  • By 1989, Hanford became a Superfund site and Washington entered into the Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, known as the Tri-Party Agreement, with the DOE, EPA, and its own state Ecology Department to establish a remediation plan.
  • According to the 2013 report issued by the Tri-Party pact, the lifecycle cost of cleaning up Hanford will be more than $114 billion and take more than 75 years to complete.6

Other High-Profile Defense Waste Sites

  • DOE’s Office of Environmental Management was charged with overseeing the cleanup of more than 100 sites across the country—encompassing an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island. Through diligent work, the number of sites is now down to 17 spread across 11 states.7 After Hanford, the next largest defense waste sites are Savannah River and the Idaho National Laboratory.
  • The Savannah River site sits on more than 300 square miles between two metropolitan areas—Aiken, S.C., and Augusta, Ga. The Cold War-era defense waste site first came into operation in the 1950s and housed five reactors that produced tritium and plutonium-239 used in the fabrication of nuclear weapons.
  • At least 36 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste was produced at the site and held in 49 underground storage tanks. In April 2012, DOE announced it successfully remediated more than 2.6 million gallons of radioactive waste—the first time underground storage tanks had been closed in the U.S.8
  • In addition to housing the nation’s leading nuclear research lab, the Idaho site also has a facility constructed in 1953 that was used to recover uranium by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The current 10-year, $4 billion dollar cleanup plan is a crucial part of protecting the Snake River Basin from contamination, as it provides the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 people.9

A Possible Way Forward?

  • DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project, located near Carlsbad, N.M., contains deep caverns in ancient salt formations that are “an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment,”10 according to a DOE fact sheet.
  • The salt formations located in a desert are impermeable, free of fresh water and geologically stable. The facility is the world’s only geologic repository for storing radioactive waste and already stores more than 85,000 cubic meters of low-level transuranic waste, which are manmade elements with a higher atomic number than uranium, like sediment and debris that can be moved and stored with proper safety precautions.
  • In response to the emerging threat of continued leaks at Hanford, the federal government is considering moving high-level defense waste to the repository in New Mexico. That consideration has drawn scrutiny from environmentalists and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico over the expansion of the permitted uses of the site without further public input.11

Map of Current DOE Office of Environmental Management Cleanup Sites




1. “Nuclear Waste Leaks Worse than Thought in Washington.” William Pentland, Forbes. February 23, 2013.

2. “DOE Shares SRS Budget Cut Projections with Gov. Haley.” Rob Pavey, Augusta Chronicle. March 5, 2013.

3. “The Nuclear Waste Policy Act.” P.L. 97-425

4. “Poisons Cleansed from Savannah River Site Tanks.” Sammy Fretwell, The State. March 29, 2012.

5. “Hanford Overview and History.” U.S. Department of Energy.

6. “2013 Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report.” Tri-Party Agreement, February 2013.

.7. DOE Office of Environmental Management,

8. DOE Office of Environmental Management Press Release, October 1, 2012.

9. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission Full Report, January 2013., p. 7

10. “Why WIPP?” DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Project fact sheet.

11. “Feds Look to ship Washington State Radioactive Waste to New Mexico.” Shannon Dininny, AP/Miami Herald. March 3, 2013.

Aging Defense Waste Storage Sites and Cleanup Efforts in States

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