Energy secretary nominee Moniz says no more Hanford status quo

April 9, 2013 

— Maintaining the status quo in environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation is not acceptable, said Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary nominee, Tuesday.

He was questioned about Hanford in a three-hour hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Among highlights was a commitment to Cantwell to visit Hanford soon and no objection to creation of a new national park that would include Hanford's historic B Reactor. He also told Cantwell he saw no reason why some unneeded Hanford land could not be transferred for economic development.

A trip to Hanford will be a priority if he's confirmed, in light of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board letter outlining Hanford issues sent to Wyden last week, he said.

"My plan would be to get hard briefings immediately, (and then) go to the site because I think you need to be there to understand the issues," he said.

Then he would work with Wyden, Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to put together a plan "and do that expeditiously," he said.

The letter from the defense board covered continuing hydrogen explosion risks in five Hanford tanks holding radioactive waste, technical issues that continue to plague the vitrification plant under construction and improvements still needed in the safety culture at the plant.

"It is flatly unacceptable that DOE still has no acceptable plan for cleaning up hazardous waste on the banks of the Columbia River half-a-century after the contamination occurred and more than a decade since you served as undersecretary of energy," Wyden said.

Progress was made at Hanford when he was appointed undersecretary in 1997, Moniz said.

The science of contamination in the soil has been advanced and 2,300 tons of highly radioactive uranium fuel in the Hanford K Basins has been moved away from the Columbia River, Moniz said.

In addition, the Wyden "watch list" of 56 older, single-shell tanks at risk of explosion was closed as issues were resolved, he said.

But the waste in five-double shell tanks continues to periodically release hydrogen into the tank's head space, he said. In March, waste in one of those tanks released hydrogen into its head space. But concentrations remained below one-tenth the lower limit at which it could be flammable and controls were in place to make sure there is no ignition source, according to DOE officials.

When Moniz met with outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the first issue Chu brought up was technical concerns at the Hanford vitrification plant, Moniz said.

There does seem to be general agreement about what the major challenges are, Moniz said.

"My guess is that I will come to the conclusion that the key uncertainties are identified, but there may be still some specifics in there we will have to do a little more work," he said.

Those issues may include better understanding the composition of the disparate waste that has been held in 177 underground tanks from different chemical processes and making sure the waste is mixed in the right way, he said.

"I'm not out to invent a new theory of these wastes," he said. "I'd like to be as pragmatic as we can to move the project forward."

A safety culture that still needs improvement at the vitrification plant, as reported by the safety board, is "simply unacceptable," Moniz said.

He told Wyden he would meet with Hanford whistleblowers, who believe that discussing issues related to the vit plant's safe operation put their jobs at risk. Hanford contractors disagree.

DOE expects to need two more years to determine whether 14 more of Hanford's single-shell tanks are leaking radioactive waste in the ground, after discovering in February and March that six single-shell tanks believed to be stabilized were leaking, Wyden said.

Moniz said he would look into why an investigation will take so long.

The 14 huge, underground tanks have had some discrepancies in waste levels observed, but Hanford officials said that could be due to evaporation or waste settling.

Moniz pledged to work with communities "in the most transparent manner" on cleanup of Hanford and other Department of Energy sites.

He will work with Cantwell and other members of Congress to secure the money needed to meet legal environmental cleanup deadlines at Hanford, despite likely federal budget cuts, he said.

His discussion of B Reactor becoming part of a new Manhattan Project Historical Park and industrial development of a small portion of Hanford's 586 square miles was brief.

He is aware of the two proposals, but has no in-depth knowledge, he said. He sees no reason why they would not go forward and will work with Cantwell on them, he said.

The Tri-City Development Council, in cooperation with local governments, has asked for Hanford land just north of Richland for industrial development, with a focus on clean energy.

On other issues of Tri-City interest:

w Moniz should visit Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland to learn about its research to modernize and protect the nation's electrical grid and research on other energy issues discussed at the hearing, Cantwell said.

Moniz said that work is needed on grid technology to improve security and reliability and to make it more robust in the event of natural or man-made disasters. The nation also needs to use its national security assets to protect the grid, he said.

He would like to increase the role of directors of national laboratories, including PNNL, in strategic decisions made at DOE, he said. He also wants to see more research issues addressed by multi-disciplinary teams, he said.

w Moniz understands the importance of the Bonneville Power Administration to the Northwest, he told Cantwell.

Its core responsibility is to deliver power as inexpensively as possible, he said.

w Cantwell brought up a proposal to separate military waste, such as Hanford's high level radioactive waste, from used commercial nuclear power fuel as the nation discusses waste disposal.

Both had been proposed to go to a the planned Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository before the Obama administration halted work on it.

Concerns about being able to retrieve commercial fuel from a repository for possible future reprocessing has hurt efforts to find cheaper and faster ways to dispose of Hanford's high level radioactive waste, according to Cantwell's staff. Hanford waste cannot be reprocessed for electricity generation.

Moniz, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, said the issue was discussed extensively by the commission but the final report failed to address it.

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