New cost for Hanford cleanup projected at $112 billion

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 9, 2012 

The new price tag for completing the remainder of Hanford nuclear reservation cleanup, plus some post-cleanup oversight, is $112 billion.

That is down $3 billion from last year, according to projections in the annual Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report.

The drop primarily is because of work accomplished last year using Department of Energy annual budget money and the final year's spending of Hanford's federal economic stimulus money.

However, last year's estimate of $115 billion was criticized by some as unrealistically low.

The report estimating the cost of the remaining Hanford cleanup through 2065, plus 25 years of post-cleanup management, is required by October 2010 changes to the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement, which also extended some environmental cleanup deadlines.

The report is required to be prepared annually to provide estimated costs and schedules that should provide a basis for agency and public discussion of cleanup priorities, including for discussions of annual budget requests.

The 2012 report is the second to be compiled for Hanford, which is contaminated with radioactive and chemical waste from the World War II and Cold War production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Final decisions on what cleanup will be required for some projects on the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation have not been made. For those projects, the report was required to make a plausible, upper-range estimate.

However, the Hanford Advisory Board said last year that the 2011 report frequently used minimal cost alternatives rather than presenting cost ranges. The advisory board long has advocated for the more costly option of removing as much waste as reasonably possible rather than trying to prevent human intrusion into the waste far into the future.

Among work that reasonably can be anticipated that is not included in the cost estimate is additional cleanup along the Columbia River, at least partial retrieval of waste in unlined trenches and soil cleanup around leak-prone underground tanks holding high-level radioactive waste, according to the advisory board last year.

DOE needed until August to pull together the information in the first report, with a plan to move to annual reports each February after that. Because of the short turnaround time between the 2011 and 2012 reports, comments from 2011 will be considered for the 2013 report, according to DOE.

The $112 billion estimated for future cleanup in the latest report includes $61 billion for DOE Office of River Protection work. That is down from $63 billion in the 2011 report. The Office of River Protection is responsible for retrieving 53 million gallons of radioactive waste from underground tanks and treating it for disposal, primarily at the vitrification plant under construction.

Work under the Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for the rest of Hanford cleanup, is estimated to cost $51 billion, down from $52 billion in 2011.

Annual costs in the report are based on legal requirements and deadlines, and the 2012 report shows that in six future years annual budgets of at least $3 billion would be required, including five years before 2020.

Typical annual Hanford budgets are closer to $2 billion, although an extra $1.96 billion was available from federal economic stimulus money.

Annual spending based on the report's projections would not drop below $2 billion until 2046, when spending would start to decrease rapidly. Costs in the report are escalated for inflation.

Each year's report is planned to take a closer look at selected projects, and the 2012 report focuses on different scenarios for retrieving and treating radioactive tank waste and then closing empty underground tanks. The cost under the current plan is $59.9 billion.

If the start of operations of the vitrification plant, now required in 2019, is delayed four years, the cost of all work is estimated to increase to $66 billion, even if there is a 10 percent increase in vitrification plant capacity. If the start of waste treatment is delayed and more double-shell tanks need to be built to hold waste emptied from leak-prone single-shell tanks, the cost would rise to $68.7 billion.

Other scenarios considered could save money.

The vitrification plant was planned to treat all of the high-level waste in the tanks but not all of their low-activity waste.

Instead of adding more capacity to the vitrification plant in the form of a second Low Activity Waste Facility, DOE has discussed treating some of the waste by steam reforming instead. That proposal would drop the cost to $58.1 billion. By doing both -- adding a second Low Activity Waste Facility and using steam reforming -- the cost would drop to $57.3 billion, in part because the vitrification plant would not need to operate as long.

However, DOE would need to convince its regulators that steam reforming would produce a waste product that is as good as the glassified waste produced by vitrification. The report also stated that the accelerated scheduled needed to start steam reforming in 2018 requires significant risk.

The report is posted at www.hanford.gov.

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