The U.S. Department of Energy said it plans to remove up to 3.1 million gallons of radioactive waste from aging underground tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State and truck it to Carlsbad, New Mexico, for disposal.

At least six tanks are leaking waste, Washington State governor Jay Inslee (D) announced two weeks ago. In a press release, he called the plan "a good start. The state of Washington had been pushing to get this waste out of Hanford and I’m heartened that the increased attention on these leaking tanks has prompted DOE to act."

However, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall (D) told Reuters that "The state of New Mexico’s permit for [the Carlsbad plant] specifically prohibits waste from Hanford, so any proposal to change that would need strong justification and public input."

The world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor, Hanford produced most of the material for the U.S. arsenal of nuclear bombs, including the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. It was also catastrophically toxic. Starting in 1944, the plant, which is about 170 miles southwest of Spokane, silently released huge amounts of radiation into the air, water and soil – sometimes intentionally, the government now admits.

As previously reported in The National Law Journal, thousands of local residents sued the contractors that ran the plant, alleging that the radiation releases caused cancer and other illnesses.

The case has been ongoing for more than two decades. About 135 cases involving thyroid cancer are now moving toward trial, as are 132 involving thyroid nodules, according to a January 16 status report filed in Spokane federal court.

About 400 other plaintiffs allege that contaminated water from the Columbia River caused illnesses. Plaintiffs lawyers have asked the court to defer action temporarily on these cases while they prepare for the thyroid trials.

In an amended complaint filed in 2003, plaintiffs alleged that the contractors who ran the plant "recklessly generated, handled, stored, treated, disposed of, and/or failed to control hazardous and radioactive materials."

Contact Jenna Greene at jgreene@alm.com.