ODOE’s Ken Niles Weighs in on Hanford Waste Treatment: “We must remain vigilant, informed, and involved."


On March 1, Ken Niles – an Oregon Department of Energy assistant director in charge of nuclear safety and emergency preparedness – spoke at an event in Richland, Washington hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The two-day meeting, titled Supplemental Treatment of Low-Activity Waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, was open to the public. In addition to Ken, it featured speakers from the Hanford Advisory Board, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Washington Department of Ecology, and more. The Tri-City Herald published an informative article previewing the issues the meeting would focus on, and a follow-up article summarized some of the discussions. Videos from the meeting are available online.

The Oregon Department of Energy has a long-standing oversight role in cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site, and we were pleased Ken was invited to speak on such important issues for the region. You can watch Ken’s presentation – which touched on science, history, and the importance of a healthy Columbia River to Oregon – or read his remarks as prepared:


Good afternoon, and welcome to the Pacific Northwest.

Thank you for inviting Oregon to present during your meeting here in Richland.

I’d like to start by spending a few moments talking about Oregon’s involvement and interests in the Hanford Site.

Oregon is in a unique situation.  

We are not a regulator at Hanford.

We lack legal standing in many instances.

We are often lumped in as just another “stakeholder.”

But our interests and our concerns are clear.

Since Hanford first began to operate, it has released large amounts of radioactive material into our air and into the Columbia River. Thousands of truckloads of waste going to or coming from Hanford have traveled across our state and thousands more will again cross our state in the years to come. In the northeastern portion of Oregon, our citizens are at risk in the event of a severe fire or other accident that releases a radioactive plume to the environment.

Most importantly, decades of producing plutonium and generating and disposing of the waste, puts the Columbia River at risk for generations to come. DOE’s own calculations predict potential impacts to the groundwater and potentially the Columbia River for hundreds of years into the future.

The Columbia River is the region’s ecological and economic heart. It is essential to our economy, to our values, to our way of life.

As both ancestral and modern-day home to Native American tribes in Oregon; through salmon and lamprey habitat and access; irrigation of agricultural products worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually; world-renowned windsurfing and other recreational activities; and ultimately as it connects to the watersheds and other natural resources along its path to the Pacific Ocean – this river’s importance to our state, our region, and our identity is irreplaceable.

Hanford put a lot of radioactivity into the Columbia River in the 1950s and 1960s – enough to prompt internal debate at Hanford as to whether fishing should be restricted. The decision at the time was not to call attention to Hanford’s operations.

As production ended and Hanford shifted into cleanup and those truths began to be revealed – decades later – there was a commitment within Oregon’s government that continues to this day, that we must remain vigilant, informed, and involved with Hanford. We don’t have the luxury to do otherwise.

We want to help ensure that cleanup decisions at Hanford are protective of the Columbia River now and forever into the future.

I began working for the Oregon Department of Energy on Hanford issues in July of 1989 – just two months after the Tri-Party Agreement was signed and cleanup formally began. During those 28 ½ years, there have been countless times where a new Administration, or new leadership at the Department of Energy, or some oversight body looked at the Hanford cleanup – especially the tank waste cleanup – and said, this is too expensive and is taking too long. We’ve got to find a way to do it cheaper.

Just once, I would like to hear “How can we do this better?” How can we ensure protection for as long as these wastes will remain hazardous?

I’ve got to tell you – grout must have a thousand uses – because almost no matter what the problem at Hanford, it seems to be offered as the solution.

  • Part of a PUREX tunnel collapses – let’s fill it with grout. Oh, and let’s fill the other one with grout too.
  • Highly contaminated gloveboxes in the Plutonium Finishing Plant. Fill them with grout.
  • Contaminated equipment removed from inside of Hanford’s tanks. Put it in a box and fill it with grout.

And in many cases, grout may very well be the best answer.

For Hanford’s tank waste, we are a long way from being convinced that grout will safely contain the technetium and iodine and other contaminants that are mobile and long-lived – the prime reason grout was rejected here at Hanford in the early 1990s. 

We keep hearing that grout technology has appreciably improved since then.

But so far, we haven’t seen documentation that validates that claim.

It’s going to take a lot more than generic comments that “experts agree.” Because we know some experts don’t agree, and the definition of who’s an expert seems to change depending on the point being argued. We appreciate that members of this Committee also did not accept those generic statements from the Government Accountability Office during their presentation in December, and we urge you to maintain a standard of objective, evidence-based science.

Here’s what we would need to see to buy into the idea of grouted Hanford tank waste being disposed on site:

  • If the assumptions that informed past analyses of long-term waste form performance are to be changed by the FFRDC review, those changes should be explicitly supported by credible scientific evidence verified in real-world environments. There is a big difference between short-term laboratory experiments and long-term testing in a complex, uncertain, and changing real-world environmental system.
  • Uncertainties in the analysis must be explicitly acknowledged and not waved away by simply changing assumptions.
  • Because the public will bear the long-term risks of this decision, their values should be solicited and incorporated into the final recommendations.
  • Recommendations should be consistent with the National Academy’s 2011 review of long-lived nuclear waste forms, which asserted that, “waste form technology and performance should be judged in the context of the disposal system in which the waste form will be emplaced.” In other words, location is everything. Any attempt to prove the validity of a waste form other than glass must be accompanied by a comprehensive understanding of the complex subsurface environment at Hanford, realistic estimates of the durability of caps and other engineered structures, and an acknowledgment of the unique vulnerabilities associated with placing wastes within sight of a river that supports the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
  • DOE has in recent years turned toward “reducing grouts” that they assert can hold long-lived mobile radionuclides for thousands of years. In the back of the recent GAO report, “an expert” noted that grout is a porous material that lets water pass through and carries contaminants away. A study published by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2003 showed that as subsurface water and gases come into contact with reduced grouts, the grouts begin to oxidize and lose the property that made them more effective at holding Tech-99. If grout cracks due to thermal expansion and contraction, chemical processes, an earthquake, or some other process, the amount of surface area exposed to air and moisture increases dramatically.
  • A 2015 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory report on the technical approach to performance assessments for cast stone disposal at Hanford reinforced that these issues persist and added others, such as preferential vertical flow pathways where the waste form meets soil, which could result in earlier arrivals and higher peak concentrations of contaminants at the point of compliance. It also found that during waste form testing, 30% of the iodine in the best grout form available had leached after 500 days. If DOE or others want to convince us that reducing grout is the shiny new solution, they need to be able to answer the science that casts doubt on these claims.

Hanford’s subsurface is an incredibly complicated environment – with clastic dikes, lateral flow, and preferential pathways that have been a continual source of surprise.

It wasn’t all that long ago when DOE said there was no way that leaked tank waste at Hanford could reach the groundwater. And, of course, it did.

It also wasn’t all that long ago that DOE said travel time for groundwater from the 200 Areas to the Columbia River was on the order of centuries – and of course it was far quicker than that.

Oregon and others, including the Nez Perce tribe just recently, have long maintained that DOE’s assumptions about how waste and water interact with the subsurface environment are oversimplified and inconsistent with our best scientific knowledge of the site’s hydrogeology and geochemistry.

There is so much uncertainty about what can happen in the Hanford subsurface. This uncertainty must be resolved to our satisfaction before we can believe that a waste form other than glass will behave in the environment over long timeframes as DOE believes.

It may seem to some that Oregon is being unreasonable to expect DOE to “prove grouted waste forms un-dangerous,” but when the stakes involve the potential for irreversible harm to an irreplaceable resource, the wisest course is one of precaution.

What is often lost in these discussions is the fact that DOE willingly entered into an agreement with the State of Washington and agreed to certain milestones to vitrify Hanford’s tank waste – both waste streams, the low-activity waste included. That DOE has still not yet been able to accomplish this does not mean that those of us here in the Northwest agree that it’s time to do something less protective in the interests of trying to save money.

We understand the cost argument. There really doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the cost escalations associated with the Hanford tank waste project. We get it. It’s been incredibly expensive and it’s going to continue to be so.

But just because it’s hard to do and expensive, doesn’t mean the obligation is any less.

Again, thank you for the opportunity for Oregon to appear before the Committee. Your efforts at outreach with us so far have been very good and we appreciate that.

I’m happy to take your questions.