Governor confident Chu can address Hanford vit plant issues

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 19, 2012 

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire will not leave office at noon Jan. 16 without the Hanford vitrification plant on a stable path toward treating Hanford's radioactive waste, she said Tuesday in the Tri-Cities.

The governor, who is not seeking re-election, toured the Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, under construction and also spoke at a Tri-City Development Council lunch Tuesday.

The vitrification plant is not only her top priority, but she also believes it is Energy Secretary Steven Chu's top priority after talking to him on the phone Friday, she said.

Her visit to the Tri-Cities came after she sent a letter to Chu asking him for answers that would show the Department of Energy is serious about meeting requirements of a court-ordered consent decree that includes having the vitrification plant in full operation in 2022.

She and Attorney General Rob McKenna set a deadline of Sept. 26 for a reply, saying until then they would not invoke dispute resolution over the consent decree. The court-ordered process would start with negotiations but could escalate to a petition for court action after 40 days.

On Friday, she told Chu she would not go forward with the mediation provided by the consent decree, she said. She intends to wait a few weeks for a complete briefing, she told the Herald.

Chu asked her to put together a panel of the state's best technical people for a briefing and she has started to do that, she said. She takes that as a sign that DOE plans to proceed in full partnership with the state.

"I was clear that I would not give up on funding or timing," she said. "He said neither would he."

In the next few weeks, she expects Chu to tell the state if the vitrification plant, which has unresolved technical issues, can be built on time or what needs to be done, Gregoire said.

Just 13 months after the consent decree was signed in October 2010 to resolve a lawsuit brought by the state in federal court, DOE told the state it might not be able to meet some unspecified deadlines, according to the state.

In May, DOE confirmed that 10 requirements to build and operate the Hanford vitrification plant were at risk, starting with deadlines to have portions of construction completed and ending with the 2022 operating deadline.

The consent decree requires DOE to do everything in its power to meet the schedule, including addressing technical concerns and aggressively pursuing money from Congress and other sources, said the letter from Gregoire and McKenna.

She will not leave office without either starting down the legal path outlined by the consent decree or resolving issues with DOE, she said. But she is confident after talking to Chu that issues can be resolved.

The state is fortunate to have Chu as the national energy secretary, she said.

He's committed to addressing vitrification plant technical issues not only as an energy secretary but also with his personal expertise, Gregoire said. Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is spending 10 hours a week on the plant's technical issues, she said.

When she talked to him, he planned to meet with his team of experts the next day, a Saturday. He also spent several days in Richland and at Hanford earlier this month with the team he assembled.

His team has the professional credentials to have direct access to the top experts in the world, giving Chu "two degrees of separation" to them, Gregoire said.

Since the vitrification plant is a first-of-its kind plant, that expertise is needed, she said. The $12.2 billion plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Among issues to be addressed is whether waste can be kept well mixed to prevent a buildup of plutonium and an uncontrolled nuclear reaction and whether metal will erode and corrode within the plant before it completes 40 years of waste treatment. Chu and his team have been looking specifically at the design of "black cells," which will be too radioactive for workers to enter for maintenance or repairs once operations begin.

Construction work has been slowed at key parts of the plant until technical issues have been resolved.

Gregoire told Chu that by the time she leaves office, full work on the plant will be restarted with no more stops, she said.

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