History of the Commercial Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site in Eastern Washington

Washington State has one of the nation's three commercial low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) disposal sites. The site is located in Benton County and is approximately 23 miles northwest of Richland in eastern Washington. The commercial LLRW site is located near the center of the 586-square mile United States Department of Energy (USDOE) Hanford Site, on approximately 100 acres of land leased to the state of Washington. Beginning in the 1940's, the primary mission at Hanford was to produce nuclear materials in support of national defense. The production of these materials resulted in contaminated soil and groundwater throughout Hanford and particularly in the area known as the central plateau. Since 1989, identification and cleanup of these sites has been USDOE's top priority at Hanford.

On September 10, 1964, Washington State and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) entered into a 100-year lease agreement for 1,000 acres of land on the Hanford Site.[1] In 1965, the state of Washington leased 100 acres of this land to US California Nuclear for the operation of the commercial LLRW site.[2] In 1968 Nuclear Engineering Company acquired California Nuclear, and in 1981 California Nuclear changed its name to US Ecology, Inc. US Ecology, a wholly owned subsidiary of US Ecology Inc., has been the site operator since 1968. The commercial LLRW site has been in operation since 1965 and is still operated by US Ecology. Conventional shallow-land burial of packaged waste into unlined trenches is practiced at the commercial LLRW facility. Types of waste disposed at the site since 1965 include LLRW, naturally occurring and accelerator-produced radioactive material (NARM), non-radioactive hazardous waste, and mixed waste (radioactive waste having a hazardous component. The facility is currently licensed to only receive low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) and NARM.

By 1979, the commercial LLRW site was receiving approximately half of the nation's low-level radioactive waste volume. As a result of the imbalance between the small volumes of waste Washington State was generating and the large volumes of waste it was receiving, the state, in conjunction with Nevada and South Carolina, sought passage of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980 (Act), P. L. 96-573. The Act made each state responsible for disposal of its own low-level radioactive waste and encouraged the formation of compacts between states to manage low-level radioactive waste on a regional basis.

Before Washington State could comply with the Act, the citizens of Washington approved Initiative 383 on November 4, 1980. Initiative 383 banned the disposal of all non-medical waste generated outside Washington State. In 1981, a U.S. District Court held Initiative 383 to be unconstitutional. Following this decision, Washington State moved forward with forming a low-level radioactive waste compact with other states.

In 1981, the states of Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Utah formed the Northwest Interstate Compact. Congress ratified the Northwest Compact in 1985 and passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act (Amendments Act) of 1985, P.L. 99-240. Wyoming exercised its option to join the Northwest Compact in 1992. The Amendments Act allowed state compacts with operating sites to exclude low-level radioactive wastes, beginning in 1993. In 1993, the Northwest Compact exercised its authority to exclude low-level radioactive wastes generated outside its member states. By formal agreement in 1993 between the Northwest Compact and the Rocky Mountain Compact, waste generated in the states of Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico has been disposed at the commercial LLRW site. Currently, the majority of the LLRW disposed at the site is from generators in Washington and Hawaii.

The commercial site has received about 14 million cubic feet of radioactive waste that contains about 4 million curies. The remaining capacity of the facility is approximately 44 million cubic feet.

[1] This lease is now between the state and USDOE; the AEC was abolished, and the NRC and USDOE were created.

[2] In 1993, USDOE exercised its option under the lease and asked the state to return 900 of the 1,000 acres, leaving 100 acres of land for the commercial LLRW disposal site.