State demands DOE response about consent decree

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldAugust 31, 2012 

Washington state leaders have threatened to take the first step down the path toward legal action over court-ordered deadlines that may be missed by the Department of Energy at Hanford's vitrification plant.

They have given Energy Secretary Steven Chu a deadline to send a response showing DOE is serious about meeting requirements of a court-ordered consent decree that includes having the Hanford vitrification plant in full operation in 2022.

The state has postponed the first step toward taking the Department of Energy back to court under the consent decree, pending a response from Chu by Sept. 26, said Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna in a letter to Chu dated Wednesday.

The consent decree, signed in October 2010 to resolve a lawsuit filed by the state against DOE, allows the state to take DOE back to court if it believes the federal government is not complying with requirements. However, first the state and DOE must discuss issues in a 40-day dispute resolution period.

"The Energy Department values its relationship with the state of Washington and recognizes the importance of working together to achieve the safe and timely cleanup of Hanford's tank waste," said Carrie Meyer, DOE spokeswoman, Thursday. "We will work with the state to address their concerns."

DOE told the state just 13 months after the consent decree was signed that it might not be able to meet some unspecified deadlines, according to the letter.

In May, DOE confirmed that 10 consent decree requirements for building and operating the Hanford vitrification plant were at risk, starting with a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline to place concrete slabs at the 98-foot elevations for the vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility.

The 10th deadline at risk was the one requiring the plant to be fully operational at the end of 2022.

The deadlines were at risk because of technical issues related to keeping waste well mixed, erosion and corrosion of metal components of the plant over its operating lifetime and the documented safety analysis, the state was told.

In addition, DOE told the state in May that it had directed its contractor Bechtel National to develop a new cost and schedule for the plant which would be based on annual budgets of $690 million. DOE had earlier based plans to keep the plant on schedule by spending as much as $970 million in the fiscal year with starts in October.

Then in July, DOE said it would delay creating a new cost and schedule for key parts of the plant until technical issues that could affect the safe and efficient operation of the plant are addressed.

The $12.2 billion plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste now stored in underground tanks, some of them prone to leaks, into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's weapons program.

DOE apparently has decided to ignore the court's order "without even evaluating whether maintaining compliance remains technically possible," according to a statement from the governor's office Thursday.

"We believe the CD (consent decree) requires the department to do everything in its power to implement and meet the current CD schedule, as an order of the court," Gregoire and McKenna said in the letter. "This includes both addressing technical concerns and aggressively pursuing funding from Congress, internal department resources and any other federal sources."

Any further delay in the construction and the operation of the vitrification plant puts the state at risk, according to Gregoire and McKenna.

"Waste held in unfit underground single-shell tanks, many of which have already leaked, threatens the groundwater, the river and our public health," their letter said.

The consent decree requires DOE to demonstrate "good cause" for requesting any schedule extension.

"It is our view that, at a minimum, a reasonably diligent response to a possible schedule delay must involve DOE promptly obtaining all information necessary to inform DOE, the state and the court of the full range of possible responses to the technical issues giving rise to DOE's schedule concerns," the letter said.

It includes developing a schedule that does not assume budgetary limitations and is designed to meet all consent decree requirements or come as close as is possible, the letter said.

The state sent a letter to the Department of Justice in May asking that such a cost and schedule be developed, but the request was declined, according to the letter.

The letter was timed to a visit by Chu to Richland next week with a group of hand-picked experts to study vitrification plant technical issues, particularly those related to its black cells. Those enclosed rooms will be too radioactive for workers to enter to make repairs after the plant starts operating.

"I am grateful that Secretary Chu is providing personal attention to these serious issues and involving additional experts in his review," Gregoire said in a statement Thursday. "Secretary Chu has indicated that he will discuss the results of his review with me and I look forward to hearing his plans for satisfying the consent decree requirements."

McKenna also commented Thursday on a memo written by DOE's engineering design director last week calling for Bechtel to be removed as the design authority for the vitrification plant. The memo was sent to Hanford's DOE Office of River Protection manager, Scott Samuelson.

"We have been following many of the technical issues described in the memo for some time, and while we understand the issues to be serious, they can be resolved," McKenna said in a statement.

"DOE, as the owner of the site and the entity responsible for meeting requirements set forth by the court, is responsible for ensuring that the plant runs safely and effectively for 40 years," he said.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service