Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


 State of Washington v. U.S. Department of Energy

Transuranic Waste Shipments to Hanford
Question and Answer
March 4, 2003

On March 4, 2003, the state of Washington filed a lawsuit to stop the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) from sending additional shipments of transuranic waste to Hanford from other states.

Q:Where is the lawsuit being filed?

A: Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Washington—Spokane.

Q:What is transuranic (TRU) waste?

A: TRU wastes are radioactive materials that are by-products of nuclear weapons production. These wastes are long-lived and may be extremely dangerous. Transuranic wastes contain radioactive elements such as plutonium and have atomic numbers higher than uranium. Containers holding some TRU waste are sufficiently radioactive to require handling with special machinery to protect workers. By definition: transuranic wastes contain more than 100 nanocuries of alpha-emitting transuranic isotopes per gram of waste, and have half-lives of greater than 20 years.

Mixed TRU waste is radioactive waste that also contains hazardous substances that are regulated by federal or state law.

Q:When did the USDOE begin shipping TRU waste to Hanford?

A: Hanford received the first shipments of TRU wastes on December 20th, 2002. The thirty 55-gallon drums came from two off-site generators (10 drums from Battelle Columbus, West Jefferson, Ohio; and 20 drums from Boeing Company's Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC) in Canoga Park, California).

In February, Hanford received 10 more 55-gallon drums. USDOE has scheduled shipments to arrive at Hanford on March 5, and March 19, 2003.

Q: Why didn’t the state try to stop USDOE from shipping the waste last December?

A: The state was ready to sue USDOE to prevent TRU waste shipments last December. Legal action was put on hold after USDOE pledged to develop enforceable milestones by March 1, 2003 that would assure Hanford’s existing TRU waste and future shipments from Ohio and California would ultimately be disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

Currently, the state does not have any enforceable agreement with USDOE that specifically requires that TRU wastes be cleaned up at Hanford. The 1989 Tri-Party Agreement between USDOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology established a timeline for cleaning up much of the dangerous waste at Hanford, but specific cleanup schedules for TRU waste were not included in that agreement.

There is enough TRU waste and mixed TRU waste already stored at Hanford to fill approximately 78,000 (55-gallon) drums. Most of it is partially buried in unlined trenches.

The state entered into negotiations with DOE in good faith. USDOE led the state to believe it would agree to enforceable commitments to address TRU waste clean up. That agreement would have ultimately had a positive impact for Washington’s human and environmental health.

Q: What does the state hope to accomplish with this lawsuit?

A: The state is seeking to stop all shipments of TRU waste to Hanford until sufficient assurances are in place that all state and federal environmental laws will be complied with.

Q: What laws support the actions the state is taking?

A: The state believes USDOE plans to transport, treat, and/or indefinitely store radioactive and hazardous TRU wastes at Hanford without complying with the Washington Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA) or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Washington State regulates USDOE’s management of hazardous wastes (including mixed TRU waste) at Hanford pursuant to the HWMA.

Q: What are the risks of allowing USDOE to continue shipping TRU waste to Hanford?

A: Because USDOE did not complete the federally required environmental impact statement, the effects of shipping new TRU wastes to Hanford may not be fully known. However, the risks may include potential groundwater pollution, which could affect commerce, fishing, recreation, habitat, aesthetics, and tourism.

Further, the state has a real concern that USDOE may decide to permanently store these and other wastes at Hanford, establishing it as America’s dumping ground for nuclear waste.

Q: Why would USDOE ship the waste from Ohio and California to Washington, when it would ultimately end up in New Mexico?

A: Shipping radioactive nuclear waste through multiple states, multiple times is a big concern that the state has raised with USDOE.

As part of the negotiation process, Washington was hopeful that USDOE would start a national dialogue so that nuclear waste would be stored in the most responsible location that made sense nationally, and the states would have a clear understanding why.