RICHLAND, Wash. -- Federal officials are looking to ship some 3 million gallons of radioactive waste from Washington state to New Mexico, giving the government more flexibility to deal with leaking tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, officials said Wednesday.
The Department of Energy said its preferred plan would ultimately dispose of the waste in a massive repository -- called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant -- near Carlsbad, N.M.
"This alternative, if selected for implementation in a record of decision, could enable the Department to reduce potential health and environmental risk in Washington State," said Dave Huizenga, head of the Energy Department's Environmental Management program. He said it would not impact the safe operations of the New Mexico facility.
The transfer would only account for a fraction of the roughly 50 million gallons of waste currently at Hanford, but it would potentially impact some 20 tanks. Federal officials have identified six leaking tanks.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the proposal is a good start in the process of getting rid of Hanford's waste.
"I will be insistent that the full cycle of technical review and permitting is resolved so that any grouted material does not remain in the state of Washington," Inslee said.
Inslee on Wednesday toured Hanford -- the nation's most contaminated nuclear site -- to learn more about leaking radioactive waste tanks there. His trip came a day after federal officials acknowledged budget cuts may disrupt efforts to empty the aging vessels.
The governor's tour is the latest step in what he calls an aggressive, no tolerance approach to leaking nuclear waste. He said that pressure from his office lead to Wednesday's announcement by the DOE. But he does admit there's a good chance that the massive sequestration cuts announced Tuesday threaten the time table and waste will continue to leak from the tanks until the job is done.
Inslee also had harsh words for Congress and the White House, saying sequestration will lead to layoffs at Hanford.
"And not only will it slow down this process, which we have been waiting decades to get done, but it will also make it more expensive for the taxpayers in the long run. So this has been extremely discouraging news that the Congress has not been able to solve this problem," said Inslee.
South-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country's nuclear weapons arsenal.
While state and federal officials have stressed that the leaks pose no immediate risk to public safety or the environment, Inslee says Washington state has a "zero tolerance" policy for leaks.
In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers, the agency said.
Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor's initial concern is for the workers, but he emphasized budget constraints cannot be an excuse to delay response to the leaking tanks.
"The federal government has a commitment to the people of Washington state to clean up Hanford, and the governor will do everything possible to make that happen," Postman said.
The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford -- one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally -- so the project is still in line to receive most of its usual federal funding.
The tanks hold millions of gallons of waste and have long surpassed their intended 20-year lifespan. The Energy Department has said the leaking tanks could be releasing as much as 1,000 gallons a year.
State and federal officials have said the leaking materials pose no immediate threat to public safety or the environment, but the leaks raise concerns about the potential for groundwater to be contaminated and, ultimately, reach the neighboring Columbia River about 5 miles away.
Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote in his letter that the layoffs and furloughs may curtail progress related to closing the tanks.
The cuts within the Energy Department's budget are the result of budget turmoil in Congress, where Republicans and President Barack Obama have been fighting over how to curtail the nation's debt. The budget cuts were designed in 2011 to be so draconian that both sides would have to come together to find a better solution, but they failed to find a compromise.
The $85 billion in cuts apply to the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.
Energy Department officials said their budget was being reduced by some $1.9 billion.