Budget cuts put Hanford deadlines at risk

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMay 8, 2013 

Budget cuts and other issues have put about 10 legally binding deadlines at Hanford at risk of not being met, Department of Energy officials said Wednesday during a public budget meeting.

Those deadlines include work on such key projects as cleaning out and demolishing the Plutonium Finishing Plant and moving radioactive sludge now stored near the Columbia River to central Hanford.

Given mandatory budget cuts called sequestration of about $156 million at Hanford this year and generally tight budgets since the end of Recovery Act spending, DOE will need significantly more money for many Hanford projects in fiscal 2015.

And even if it gets that money in the difficult federal budget environment, delays this year may put some projects too far behind to meet future deadlines under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement.

Sequestration cuts are delaying the building of an annex to load radioactive sludge from the K West Basin, making the start of removal of the sludge by a deadline of fall 2014 unlikely.

If work to remove the sludge starts late, then the deadline to have the sludge removed from the basin in 2015 might not be met, said Jon Peschong, DOE deputy assistant manager for cleanup along the Columbia River and in central Hanford.

Because of sequestration, DOE also may not meet February 2014 deadlines to submit draft schedules and plans for certain soil waste sites and a group of landfills, both in central Hanford.

DOE also will not be able to drill all the wells required in 2014. Wells are used to monitor and pump up contaminated groundwater.

Work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which DOE has called the most hazardous and complex building at Hanford, has lost any margin that would allow the work schedule to recover from setbacks, Peschong said. That puts a Tri-Party Agreement deadline to have the plant torn down in 2016 at risk.

At the Hanford tank farms, legal deadlines this year and next for a report on the soundness of underground single-shell tanks likely will not be met. The report was started before six tanks holding radioactive waste were recently discovered to be leaking.

In addition, three deadlines in 2014 and 2015 to prepare for a decision about how underground tanks should be closed once they are emptied of radioactive waste are at risk of not being met, said Ben Harp, DOE manager of the vitrification plant start-up and commissioning integration. However, a proposal to "reprogram" or move budget money in the current fiscal year from the vitrification plant to the tank farms plus an adequate fiscal 2014 budget would allow DOE to meet most requirements under those deadlines.

The Wednesday meeting was held to discuss DOE Hanford officials' proposed budget request for fiscal 2015.

It already had been postponed once because of issues that included the late release this year of the Obama administration's proposed budget for fiscal 2014 and uncertainty in the current fiscal year budget, partly because of sequestration.

However, DOE said there still was too much uncertainty Wednesday to release a proposed budget request for fiscal 2015 for the tank farms and vitrification plant, the projects under the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection. The DOE office is waiting to see if Congress approves a reprogramming request to allow it to move its current budget among projects.

Among priorities at the tank farms is to meet a court-enforced consent decree deadline to have all 16 tanks in the group called C Tank Farm emptied in 2014 and then start retrieving waste from the next nine tanks, Harp said.

At the vitrification plant, priorities including resolving technical issues that have slowed construction at parts of the plant and continuing construction on other buildings. In addition, DOE's goal is to start glassifying the tank waste for disposal as soon as possible at the plant. It is studying whether it can bypass the plant's Pretreatment Facility, which has most of the technical issues, and start treating some high-level and low-activity radioactive waste.

The DOE Richland Operations Office, responsible for the rest of Hanford cleanup, is proposing an increase from current spending of $943 million this year to $1.5 billion in fiscal 2015 to meet legal and other requirements.

Budgets for the K Basins, cleanup along the Columbia River and cleaning up contaminated groundwater would each see substantial increases. Digging up temporarily buried transuranic waste -- typically waste contaminated with plutonium -- would resume. In addition, DOE would resume work to tear down the U Plant Canyon, a huge chemical processing plant in central Hanford.

But even if Hanford gets the much-increased budget Hanford DOE officials say is needed in fiscal 2015, all projects will not be able to recover schedule slips and DOE could miss more Tri-Party Agreement deadlines in later years, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hanford cleanup will need larger budgets year after year to get environmental cleanup work done, he said.

DOE earlier spent money to get smaller sites cleaned up across the nation, but it did not roll that money back into cleaning up Hanford and other large sites once smaller sites were completed, he said.

Hanford receives a little more than $2 billion in a typical budget year.

But DOE's 2013 Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost report, which estimates how much money is needed for Hanford cleanup through completion, includes annual budgets of $3 billion to $3.5 billion for five of the years between now and 2020, said John Price, of the Washington State Department of Ecology.

"We need that sort of spending sustained for several years," he said.

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

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