Chu, upbeat about Hanford vit plant, announces retirement from DOE

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 2, 2013 

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is optimistic that issues plaguing the Hanford vitrification plant soon will be resolved, avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cost, he said in a memo Friday announcing that he was stepping down.

He will continue as energy secretary until at least the end of February and possibly longer if a new energy secretary has not been picked, he said in a lengthy memo to Department of Energy employees.

Shortly after President Obama's re-election he told the president Chu did not plan to serve in the second Obama administration and would like to return to an academic life of teaching and research in California, the memo said.

Chu, who became energy secretary four years ago, visited Hanford three times as energy secretary and took a personal interest in resolving issues at the $12.2 billion vitrification plant.

The plant is being built to turn radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium into a stable form for disposal.

Chu spent several days in the Tri-Cities with a hand-picked team of trusted experts in September, which led to the formation of individual teams to address a range of concerns at the plant.

"For the past six months, I have been working with six extremely talented people, typically devoting five to 10 hours a week that include nights and weekends" just on the vit plant, he wrote in the memo. "We have been working intimately with a restructured EM (DOE Office of Environmental Management) management team to over come remaining challenges."

Washington ecologists also are participating in discussions, and the DOE team is rebuilding trust that broke down during the past decade, he said.

The team will continue working with the Office of Environmental Management for months and possibly years, he said.

"The scientific, engineering and management reform of the Waste Treatment Plant will continue, and I am optimistic that many of the issues that have been plaguing this project for over a half a dozen years will soon be resolved," he said.

By bringing in many scientists and engineers to look at the plant's challenges, DOE will fulfill its obligations more quickly and safely, he said.

"As a consequence of this renewed effort, I predict that our country will potentially avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs over the coming decades," he said.

He said he appreciated former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's trust and support during the past six months.

Chu had a large impact on Hanford by serving during the Recovery Act years, when $1.96 billion speeded up Hanford cleanup, said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council.

Across the DOE complex, the total footprint of sites contaminated by former nuclear weapons production decreased by almost 75 percent, Chu said in his memo.

That success in Hanford cleanup opened the door for efforts under way to transfer 1,641 square miles of Hanford land north of Richland for industrial development, including clean energy technology businesses, Petersen said.

Chu also supported nuclear power, including supporting the advancement of designs for small modular reactors, Petersen said.

"He's done some good things, and he's left things still on the table," Petersen said.

That includes the question of where Hanford's high level radioactive waste will go, and how long Hanford will be a de facto interim storage site without community input, he said. The Department of Energy has backed the Blue Ribbon Commission's plan to work toward opening a deep geologic repository by 2048.

Chu's interests also have been reflected in the work done at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland during the last four years.

"PNNL's recently commercialized lithium battery and smart grid energy technologies are examples of impressive innovation and technology development conducted under Secretary Chu's watch," said Geoff Harvey, PNNL spokesman.

Chu named PNNL as part of a new batteries and energy research hub to bring together the nation's top expertise on the subject in December 2012.

Chu also called on PNNL for expertise for two disasters.

PNNL researchers were among those who helped estimate how much oil was gushing from an underwater well head in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"Two and a half years later, this estimate has stood the test of time and scrutiny," Chu said in his memo.

Chu also commissioned PNNL experts to travel to Japan to provide immediate and long-term technical aid to efforts to address radioactive contamination following the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster.

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