DOE pushes to prevent vit plant furloughs

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMay 8, 2013 

Congressional committees have begun considering a Department of Energy request that could prevent furloughs at the Hanford vitrification plant and help meet a key legal deadline for emptying underground waste tanks.

DOE's reprogramming request would move federal money available this fiscal year for environmental cleanup among and within its sites.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., have been working to make sure that Hanford does not lose money in the reprogramming and that money for Hanford is moved to projects that most need it.

At Hanford, the reprogramming would move $115 million budgeted for the vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility to work elsewhere at the plant. Construction has been stopped at the Pretreatment Facility until technical issues have been worked out, leaving unneeded money in that account this year.

Bechtel National told vit plant workers in April that it was considering closing down the project for two weeks this summer because of a possible lack of money for work ready to be done.

Nonunion employees would be furloughed -- required to take paid or unpaid time off -- for those two weeks. Union employees in most cases would not be allowed to work and earn pay, either.

Reprogramming unneeded money from the Pretreatment Facility to other work at the plant could eliminate the need for furloughs, although Bechtel National is waiting to see whether the reprogramming request is approved and then for direction from DOE. Construction continues on most of the High Level Waste Facility, the Low Activity Waste Facility, the Analytical Laboratory and numerous smaller support buildings.

In addition, $46 million would be transferred from the vitrification plant budget to work at the Hanford tank farms, where underground tanks hold 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste awaiting processing for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

In addition, $2 million that had been sent to the Idaho nuclear site would be paid back to Hanford, to bring the total additional money for the tank farms to $48 million under the reprogramming request.

DOE faces a court-enforced consent decree to have all the waste in the 16 single-shell tanks in the group called C Tank Farm emptied into sturdier double-shell tanks in 2014. The money would help support the removal of waste from five tanks, helping avoid the potential for significant fines and penalties, according to DOE's reprogramming requests.

Work has slowed at the tank farm because of forced federal budget cuts called sequestration this spring.

In 2012, work was being done in two and three tanks at once to retrieve waste, and Hanford workers need to again be emptying waste in more than one tank at a time, Mike Johnson, president of Washington River Protection Solutions, said at a congressional nuclear caucus meeting organized by Hastings this week in Washington, D.C.

The possible impact of reprogramming money on staffing at the tank farms, particularly furloughs already under way, is being assessed.

As Congress waited for the reprogramming request, Hastings warned DOE that a proposal to shift money from Hanford to work at other DOE environmental cleanup projects would be met with his "strongest opposition."

There had been some consideration of shifting some money from Hanford to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as the reprogramming request was being developed.

The reprogramming request was approved Tuesday by the House Armed Services Committee. However, it also must be approved by three additional House or Senate committees before DOE may move forward.

Hastings' concerns that money would be shifted out of the Hanford budget have been addressed and he has been talking with both House committees that must approve the request to urge them to take action as soon as possible.

Adequate and effective funding is crucial to move Hanford cleanup forward, Murray said in a statement.

"I worked closely with the Obama administration and the Department of Energy to have this reprogramming sent to Congress, and I will continue working with my colleagues to ensure congressional approval," she said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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