All remaining Hanford vit plant deadlines at risk

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 8, 2013 

The nuclear waste vitrification plant at Hanford.

TRI-CITY HERALD FILE

The Department of Energy is at serious risk of missing all of the remaining Hanford vitrification plant deadlines under a court-enforced consent decree, according to the state of Washington.

DOE notified Washington and Oregon on Tuesday that three more deadlines are at substantial risk, bringing the total plant deadlines DOE may not meet to 14. They cover all of the work required to be completed on dates from 2014 to 2022 to build and operate the plant.

DOE has met the remaining five of the 19 consent decree deadlines on the $12.2 billion plant or is in talks with the state over whether they have been met. All of those came due at the end of 2012 or earlier.

"The state of Washington was disappointed, but not surprised," said the Washington State Department of Ecology in a statement released late Tuesday. It was expecting Tuesday's announcement after receiving informal information.

DOE had previously notified the state that some deadlines were at risk in November 2011 and June 2013, which included not only vitrification plant deadlines but deadlines for emptying leak-prone, underground tanks holding radioactive waste.

The vitrification plant is required to be at full operation in 2022 to glassify up to 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste now held in underground tanks, preparing it for permanent disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Washington sued DOE in 2008 when it became apparent that DOE would not meet legally binding deadlines in the Tri-Party Agreement for emptying tanks and treating the waste at the vitrification plant. The lawsuit was resolved in late 2010 when Washington state and DOE signed a consent decree approved by a federal judge that set new deadlines to be enforced by the federal court.

The understanding was that all of the requirements could be met, the Department of Ecology said in the statement released Tuesday.

The state has not indicated what action it might take to address possible missed deadlines.

However, the Washington State Office of Attorney General will work to provide "every legal option available to protect the health and safety of Washington residents," said Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a statement.

DOE notified the states about three more possible missed deadlines Tuesday "out of an abundance of caution," said Erik Olds, chief of staff for the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection. "(DOE) looks forward to discussing the circumstances with the state as we continue to engage on a path forward."

DOE might not be able to meet a deadline to commission the plant's Low Activity Waste Facility using radioactive waste by a deadline at the end of 2019.

The plant is planned to use a Pretreatment Facility to separate waste into two streams to be glassified at a Low Activity Waste Facility and a High Level Waste Facility. But construction has stopped at the Pretreatment Facility and a portion of the High Level Waste Facility until technical issues are resolved.

The Low Activity Waste Facility has no significant technical issues remaining, but the deadline for its commissioning is at risk without the Pretreatment Facility completed on time or an alternate system in place to separate at least some of the waste. DOE said in September in a document it called a "framework," that a possible path forward for getting the plant treating waste might be to bypass the Pretreatment Facility and prepare some waste in the tank farms to send directly to the Low Activity Waste facility.

The state has asked for more technical information and details on the schedule for the proposed framework, and DOE has said it will provide the information this month.

DOE also may miss the December 2018 deadline to start commissioning of the Low Activity Waste Facility without using radioactive waste, called cold commissioning. It's unlikely to start that work until it knows commissioning with radioactive waste, or hot commissioning, will follow.

The third deadline that could be missed, according to the Tuesday announcement, covers work to validate processes needed to perform testing at the Analytical Laboratory by the end of 2017. That work would not be needed until DOE is ready to proceed with commissioning.

Key deadlines that DOE earlier said were at risk include completing construction of the Low Activity Waste Facility, the High Level Waste Facility and the Pretreatment Facility. It also told the state earlier that commissioning of the High Level Waste Facility and Pretreatment Facility might not be completed on time.

That would cause deadlines to be missed to start limited operation of the vitrification plant by the end of 2019 and have it fully operating by the end of 2022.

Deadlines that have been met or are close include having structural steel installed to certain levels on two buildings and completing construction of the Steam Plant and Analytical Laboratory.

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

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