Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Energy Secretary Steven Chu agree on what's caused troubles at Hanford's massive vitrification plant and what the solution is, the governor said after returning from a meeting with Chu last week.
The $12.2 billion project may not be back on track yet, "but it is happening," she said in an interview with the Herald that focused on Hanford.
Hanford has been a key part of her public service career with the state, stretching back to 1988 when she was director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, then served three terms as state attorney general and then two as governor.
As she counts down her last two months in state office after not seeking re-election, she's working to make sure there is a path forward at Hanford, particularly for the vitrification plant, that is operational and functional, she said.
A decade after construction started at the plant to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste for disposal, questions remain about whether it is designed to treat the waste safely and efficiently, and construction has slowed or stopped on key parts of the plant. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.
DOE has said the plant is at risk of not having all key facilities operating on schedule by 2019 or being built for the current projected cost of $12.2 billion. But it cannot say what the new cost and schedule may be until technical issues are resolved.
The project has fallen into an unworkable routine, Gregoire said. An issue is raised, it is studied and reviewed, but no decision is made, she said. Then whistleblower concerns are raised, some serious and some not, she said.
However, Chu's personal interest in the plant has given her renewed confidence, she said.
"It's as encouraging as I've seen in a long time," she said. Chu sees the "fits and starts and Band-Aid approach" that have marked the project and resolution of its technical issues, she said.
Earlier this year, Chu assembled a hand-picked team of top experts in diverse fields, most of whom he knew personally, to take a look at the plant's issues, and Chu spent several days in the Tri-Cities with the team.
Ten days ago, he announced a plan, formulated with input from those experts, to group the technical issues at the plant into five areas with five teams assigned to tackle each.
Issues include how to prevent erosion and corrosion that could make parts of the plant inoperable before all the waste is treated over decades and how to make sure radioactive waste remains well mixed to prevent an unplanned nuclear reaction or a buildup of flammable gases. The work is complicated by the fact that parts of the plant are designed as "black cells," that will be so highly radioactive that workers are not planned to go into them to perform maintenance, troubleshoot or make repairs after operations begin.
Chu is assigning an additional team to look at ways the plant can operate more efficiently, treating the waste more quickly or at reduced cost.
Gregoire favors the idea of what she calls "on-call experts" that can look at issues as they come up, decide on a follow-up approach and get work started toward the solution, she said. The experts can get away from a cookie-cutter approach that repeatedly falls back on previous decisions, she said.
"When issues are raised, they cannot be dismissed," she said.
The state and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., have the best relationship they've had in a long time, with the state an active part of finding solutions, she said. DOE, contractor Bechtel National and the state Department of Ecology all have brought their top experts to the table to review issues and find solutions, she said.
That wide involvement, starting with workers on the ground, will help ensure that solutions last, that complaints are taken seriously and that work progresses quickly, she said.
She has yet to discuss Hanford with her successor, governor-elect Jay Inslee, but she plans to, she said.
"We need to foster a renewed partnership and a new way of doing business," she said.
Her greatest frustration in the more than two decades since she has worked on Hanford environmental cleanup has been the pace of work.
"I have to be patient, and that is not in my nature," she said.
Leadership should always err on the side of safety at Hanford, but that's also been used as an excuse to sometimes freeze progress or prevent decisions from being made, she said.
When she negotiated the Tri-Party Agreement, which was signed 23 years ago, there was no understanding of how difficult it would be to clean up a 586-square-mile nuclear reservation with extensive radionuclide and chemical contamination posing a threat to the Columbia River, she said.
Yet the Tri-Party Agreement, which lays out plans and deadlines for the complex job of returning Hanford to its pre-World War II and pre-Cold War condition, is one of the accomplishments she is most proud of in her career, she said.
"As frustrating as it has been for the people of the Tri-Cities, the alternative would have been much, much worse," she said.
The agreement was negotiated and signed by DOE and its regulators -- the state and the Environmental Protection Agency -- after the natural Resource Defense Council won a lawsuit making clear that states had authority to oversee the hazardous waste component of radioactive materials mixed with hazardous chemicals.
The Tri-Party Agreement provided a framework for tough decisions on nuclear cleanup that would be done on a scale not seen before in the world. Just a few years before the agreement was signed, Hanford still was producing plutonium for nuclear weapons and was shrouded in secrecy.
Without the agreement, lawsuits would have delayed cleanup of Hanford for years, said Mike Lawrence, who was the DOE Hanford manager when it was signed. And the state likely would have been back to court many times and decisions would not be made collaboratively, Gregoire said during a visit to the Tri-Cities in September.
Under the Tri-Party Agreement, the state only went to court once in more than 23 years, she said.
The state also can be proud that it is leading the world in the challenging area of nuclear cleanup, she said. Hanford workers answered the call to provide for the nation's defense starting when plutonium was produced as part of the Manhattan Project during WWII, and now workers are putting the best science to work to advance environmental cleanup, she said.
Other than "really slow and tedious" work to empty underground, radioactive waste tanks and treat the 56 million gallons of waste they hold, Gregoire's been pleased with the work that has been accomplished at Hanford, she said.
Most liquid radioactive waste has been pumped from leak-prone single shell tanks buried in the ground, weapons-grade plutonium has been shipped out of the state, highly radioactive fuel has been moved to dry storage away from the Columbia River and multiple groundwater treatment plants are removing contaminants that could otherwise foul the river.
She does have a couple of other worries about Hanford, however.
The nation has no repository for Hanford's used nuclear fuel and for the high level waste that will be treated at the vitrification plant. And getting adequate federal money for Hanford year in and year out remains a battle.
"We can't go with a tin cup to Congress every year," she said. "That's been my life."
Looking at ways to operate the vitrification plant more efficiently and treat waste more inexpensively will help, but money still may be needed to operate the plant for 40 years, she said.
The long tenures of Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Doc Hastings in Washington, D.C., has helped secure money for Hanford, she said.
She and the energy secretary discussed stable funding for Hanford last week, but she doesn't have a long-term solution to the problem, she said.
She sees adequate federal funds to clean up the contamination left by plutonium production for national defense programs in WWII and the Cold War as the nation's moral responsibility.
"When the nation needed help, we stepped up," she said.
* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; email@example.com