State, DOE reach deal on Hanford cleanup

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerAugust 12, 2009 

Washington state and the Department of Energy have reached a tentative agreement on new court-enforceable deadlines for cleanup of some of Hanford's worst waste, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced Tuesday.

"The timeline is aggressive and achievable," he said.

Chu made his first visit Tuesday to the Hanford nuclear reservation and toured the massive vitrification plant now under construction, the historic B Reactor and the HAMMER training center, among other stops.

He was joined by the governors of Washington and Oregon and Washington's two senators to announce the tentative agreement on new deadlines, which follows more than two years of negotiations.

In perhaps the biggest surprise of Chu's announcement, the Department of Energy has agreed to extend a moratorium on importing most types of radioactive waste for disposal to Hanford. DOE would not be allowed to send waste to Hanford until the vitrification plant is fully operational, which is scheduled for 2022.

Under the new deadlines, Hanford's oldest, leak-prone tanks would be required to be emptied of radioactive waste by 2040. The current deadline under the Tri-Party Agreement, which DOE is unable to meet, requires the 149 tanks to be emptied by 2018.

The waste would be required to be treated for disposal by 2047 under the proposed new deadlines, rather than the current deadline of 2028.

"Granted, that is longer than we had hoped," said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. "But it is reasonable and it is achievable."

The deadline to begin treating waste at the $12.2 billion vitrification plant would be extended from 2011 to 2019, with the plant fully operational by 2022.

The state began negotiating a new agreement with DOE in 2007 after it became clear DOE could not meet legally binding deadlines under the Tri-Party Agreement for treating waste. Among the state's concerns was a budget sufficient to empty just one tank a year -- a rate that would stretch work over more than a century.

But talks fell apart under the Bush administration. The federal government wanted provisions that would give the state less power to enforce environmental cleanup deadlines, Gregoire said.

In response, the state filed a lawsuit against DOE nine months ago to force DOE to move faster to empty tanks and treat the waste. But with the new presidential administration the state was able to resolve differences.

The proposed settlement announced Tuesday would rely on a consent decree filed in federal court, strengthening enforcement of deadlines, said Jay Manning, director of the Washington State Department of Ecology. Any change in deadlines would have to be agreed to by the court.

The strengthened enforcement power, the moratorium on waste importation and accelerated cleanup and protection of ground water agreed to earlier this year were the major benefits for the state, Manning said.

In addition, the agreement contains more short-term deadlines to make sure work is done on time. That includes "pacing" milestones for the main buildings at the vitrification plant and a deadline for completing retrieval of waste at Hanford's C Tank Farm.

C Tank Farm, a group of 16 underground tanks, was scheduled to be the first set of tanks emptied with a deadline that already has passed. Now DOE will be required to have C Farm tanks emptied by 2014.

DOE also will be required to prepare and submit to its regulators -- the state and the Environmental Protection Agency -- a complete report on the schedule and cost of completing Hanford cleanup.

The Hanford cleanup is the largest environmental cleanup effort in the world, Chu said. Technology being used for the cleanup is the best available but if better technology is developed, DOE would be legally bound to pursue it, he said.

The agreement requires a review of tank waste cleanup every three years to evaluate options for accelerating cleanup, as well as reviews every six years to see if cleanup deadlines could be tightened.

Oregon, which joined Washington in the lawsuit against DOE, reached a separate agreement with DOE. For the first time, DOE's legal obligations to Oregon for Hanford cleanup have been recognized, said Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Chu, who spoke with media after touring the vitrification plant, said he needed to see the plant to understand "the complexity of the problem." Once it begins treating waste, parts of the plant will become so radioactive that they will have to operate for decades with no human access, he said.

"The size and scale of this is like no other," Chu said. "It's the biggest nuclear plant in the world."

A week before being confirmed as energy secretary, Chu said he became aware of the issues at the vitrification plant, including false starts and project management problems. DOE's Office of Environmental Management has not had a good track record in dealing with high-level radioactive waste, he said.

However, the DOE Office of Science has managed multibillion-dollar projects and has kept almost all on schedule and budget with closer project oversight, he said. That expertise now is being used at the vitrification plant, he said.

Chu declined to say specifically how confident he is that the vitrification plant can be completed on its current cost and schedule.

"Hopefully, it's on a better path," he said. "That's all I can say."

Chu also discussed the $1.96 billion in federal economic stimulus money expected to speed up work at Hanford and get some cleanup projects back on schedule.

"Talk about shovel ready -- something that is good to go -- this is it," he said. "I'm pretty happy."

Officials say American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money now has saved 285 jobs at Hanford and created 1,424 jobs, for a total of 1,709 jobs. So far $68 million has been spent.

Chu's visit also was expected to include meetings with tribes that have historically used Hanford nuclear reservation land and leaders of organized labor.

Antone Minthorn, board chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said he was pleased both with the state and federal government's consultation with the tribes and the improved commitment to Hanford cleanup.

"This agreement is a blueprint for making real progress toward cleanup goals," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

And Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said it provides more certainty in meeting cleanup deadlines, while moving Hanford toward becoming a park to demonstrate and produce clean energy.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., was not at Hanford on Tuesday because of family commitments, but sent a message saying he hoped the proposed changes would result in smooth, continued cleanup progress.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Cruden also were at Hanford to announce the proposed settlement agreement.

It will not be made final until the public has a chance to comment. Comments are expected to be accepted from Sept. 24 to Nov. 9.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.

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