Hanford chides DOE for missed budget details

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 7, 2013 

The nuclear waste vitrification plant at Hanford.

TRI-CITY HERALD FILE

The Hanford Advisory Board criticized the Department of Energy on Friday for failing to yet make public a detailed budget request for key projects in fiscal 2015, which begins in less than 13 months.

Hanford officials held an annual public meeting on the budget four months ago, but had no numbers to discuss then for work in the tank farms or the vitrification plant.

That meeting already had been postponed because of issues including the late release of the Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2014 and uncertainty in the 2013 fiscal budget, in part because of forced federal budget cuts called sequestration.

DOE has failed to provide sufficient and timely information for several years on the two projects, both the responsibility of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, the board said in a letter of advice to DOE.

The lack of information harms the board's and the public's ability to comment on the work that is planned and the budget priorities, the letter said.

"Work does not happen without money, and the right work does not happen without details to discuss," said John Price, of the Washington State Department of Ecology, as the board discussed the issue.

DOE and its regulators -- the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- expect the board to provide advice on proposed budget priorities and the board takes that responsibility seriously, said board member Susan Leckband.

DOE Hanford officials have been unable to provide fiscal 2015 information on the vitrification plant because they are waiting on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's plan to resolve technical issues and provide a path forward for work there, said Ben Harp, DOE manager of the vitrification plant start-up and commissioning integration.

In addition, numbers have been delayed because plans and a schedule for work at Hanford's Tank AY-102 are not clear. The double-shell tank is leaking waste from its inner shell and regulations require it to be emptied.

Hanford officials already have concerns about the budget for the tank farms for fiscal 2014, which starts Oct. 1. The tank farms hold 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from weapons plutonium production in underground tanks, some of them known or suspected of leaking.

Much of the waste is expected to be glassified at the vitrification plant, which is required to start operating in 2019.

President Obama requested $520 million for the Hanford tank farms in the 2014 budget proposal submitted to Congress.

However, with that fiscal year start just weeks away and no budget approved by Congress, Hanford may be required to operate with funding levels set by a continuing resolution for an unknown time, said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection.

That could mean continuing with the current annual funding level of $409 million for the tank farms, he said.

For the upcoming fiscal years, the board, the public and Hanford regulators are struggling to develop informed advice on the priorities of emptying leaking tanks, tank farm operation and vitrification plant construction without being provided more detailed information about the budget and the work planned, according to the board letter.

The letter recommended that the Office of River Protection provide the board detailed budget proposals for fiscal 2014 and 2015 for the tank farms within 30 days.

It also called for the Office of River Protection to implement an open and transparent process to share detailed budget information in time for the board and the public to provide comments on it.

The information should be released in the spring before the administration's budget request is released, which is usually in February after a period without public discussion of the budget, the board said.

The Department of Ecology, which also was sent the letter, should take actions to ensure information is timely, the board said.

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

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