The Oregon Department of Energy expressed its concern in an official letter to the U.S. Department of Energy late last month, regarding USDOE’s proposal to offer a new interpretation of what constitutes “high-level radioactive waste” at the Hanford Site and other nuclear cleanup sites across the country.

For more than 40 years, the federal government produced plutonium for America’s nuclear weapons program at the Hanford Site in Washington. The plutonium production created large amounts of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste. Since plutonium production ended in 1989, the focus at Hanford has shifted to cleanup.

The USDOE is now reconsidering its interpretation of what classifies as high-level radioactive waste. Currently, high-level waste requires special handling, treatment, and eventual disposal in an underground national depository. Waste that is no longer considered high-level could be disposed in shallow burial at Hanford.

In its letter to the USDOE, the Oregon Department of Energy expressed concerns about how reclassifying waste could mean that more waste remains on site at Hanford. “DOE’s new interpretation signifies a potentially momentous change in how waste classifications are made throughout the nuclear weapons complex,” wrote Janine Benner, ODOE Director.

“Reclassifying this waste could have significant implications for Oregon,” said Ken Niles, ODOE Assistant Director for Nuclear Safety. “Most of the radioactive waste at Hanford is stored in aging tanks, awaiting treatment and eventual safe disposal. Many of those tanks have leaked in the past and pose a long-term contamination threat to the groundwater, which could ultimately reach the Columbia River.” Hanford sits on the Columbia River, just 35 miles from Oregon’s border. From Hanford, the Columbia flows through prime Oregon farmlands and fisheries.

ODOE also urged USDOE to increase its transparency in its decision-making, suggesting that the federal agency bring together stakeholders to consider whether changes are necessary in the present waste classification system. “Oregon would welcome the opportunity to participate in such an effort,” wrote Benner.

USDOE is accepting public comments on the proposal, and extended its deadline to receive them to January 9, 2018.

Learn more about Oregon’s work with the Hanford Site cleanup on ODOE’s website.