Western governors want trend of DOE budget cuts to end

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldDecember 22, 2012 

The governors of five western states, including Washington, are asking the White House to turn around the trend of cutting federal spending for environmental cleanup of the Department of Energy's weapons production sites, including Hanford.

"While much progress has been achieved, we are now concerned that the national fiscal environment will result in the progress virtually grinding to a halt, resulting in significant environmental risk," said a letter sent Thursday to Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget.

The letter was signed by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Their states are among 11 in the nation with contamination being cleaned up from nuclear weapons production.

The sites include Hanford, where plutonium was produced during World War II and the Cold War for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

The federal government has estimated that about $7 billion annually is needed to continue cleanup at a level that meets regulatory standards and agreements, such as Hanford's Tri-Party Agreement.

Historically, the nationwide program has received less than that -- about $6 billion to $6.5 billion a year -- and in the past few years spending has dropped below $6 billion, the letter said.

Since Congress did not pass a DOE budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, DOE has been operating under a continuing resolution that puts spending at closer to $5 billion, according to the letter.

"Given the current federal budget crisis in Washington, D.C., we are anticipating funding to continue to dwindle for this program, perhaps to just $5 billion a year or perhaps even less in fiscal year 2014 and beyond," the letter said.

That amount may sound impressive, but it costs DOE $3 billion annually just to maintain environmental cleanup sites in a safe and operable mode, it said.

While the DOE cleanup budget is shrinking, the cost of environmental cleanup continues to grow because of new and urgent high-risk cleanup work, the letter said.

At Hanford, work has slowed on key parts of the $12.2 billion vitrification plant until technical issues that could affect its eventual safe operations are resolved. The cost of the plant is expected to increase, and more time might be needed to get it operating to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste for disposal.

In addition, the first leak has been detected from the inner shell of one of Hanford's 28 double-shell tanks, raising concerns about whether the tanks will last as long as 40 more years until all the waste can be treated for disposal. DOE has estimated the cost of building one new double-shell tank at $100 million.

Emerging work across the complex includes work that is first of a kind and that is very technically challenging, which will put more pressure on near-term budgets, the letter said.

"The combination of emerging work scope and dwindling budgets is on the verge of requiring massive worker layoffs, delayed environmental cleanup, violations of numerous environmental compliance agreements and regulations, and huge increases in 'to go' costs," according to the governors.

The remaining cleanup costs nationwide already are expected to grow from $200 billion to $300 billion and the completion date could be extended from the 2060s to the 2080s, the letter said.

The White House and Congress need to work together to adequately pay for cleanup and protect the health and safety of residents who live nearby or downstream from nuclear environmental cleanup sites, the letter said.

Copies of the letter were sent to Jack Lew, White House chief of staff, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

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