Hanford Advisory Board displeased with DOE plans, secrecy

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldDecember 16, 2013 

Vit plant Hanford

Rebar and concrete walls are installed last fall at the top of the High-Level Waste Facility at the Hanford vitrification plant.


The Department of Energy's framework report for resolving technical issues at the Hanford vitrification plant, made public in late September, is a disappointment, members of the Hanford Advisory Board say.

The advisory board met for two days last week. All members agreed that DOE has been too secretive about problems and any proposed solutions.

They sent DOE a formal letter of advice asking for an open and transparent process to resolve issues and held a roundtable discussion to hear members' thoughts on the report's content.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also weighed in on the issue last week, saying a continued lack of details about the draft framework may be harming efforts to reach agreement on the future of Hanford tank waste cleanup.

Without a final plan for the plant, money from Congress could be jeopardized, Hastings said.

Construction has stopped on the plant's Pretreatment Facility, which is planned to separate radioactive waste into "low-activity" and "high-level" waste streams for separate treatment, until technical issues are resolved. Issues include the possibility of an unplanned nuclear reaction or a buildup of flammable gases.

Little information had been released about the $12.3 billion plant for more than a year as former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and his successor, Ernest Moniz, worked with teams of technical experts to identify and resolve technical issues that could affect the plant's safe and efficient operation. The plant is supposed to transform up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal.

The report discussed the possibility of pretreating some of the waste before it is sent to the vitrification plant, allowing it to bypass the plant's Pretreatment Facility. It also discussed sending some of the waste to a national repository in New Mexico for transuranic waste -- typically waste contaminated with plutonium -- without glassifying it at the vitrification plant.

'A case has not been built'

Some of the details missing from the report include the size and functionality of additional facilities that would need to be built, costs of possible solutions, and how much longer changes would take to implement, said several advisory board members.

DOE already has said the plant is at risk of not meeting deadlines in a court-enforced consent decree. It is supposed to begin operating in 2019 and be fully operating in 2022.

"A case has not been built for Congress that really compels them to adequately fund any or all of the phased steps," said Shelley Cimon, who represents the public at large on the board.

The state of Oregon, in a letter to DOE, said the year-long wait for the document and the "best of class input" the energy secretary had sought raised high expectations.

"We are surprised at the paucity of details it contains, and the near complete absence of solutions suggested for the major technical issues," the letter said.

Important concepts were outlined, but with not enough information to judge the merits of the proposals or what hurdles might need to be surmounted to make them workable, the letter said. No indication was given of what planned or ongoing work might be scaled back or deferred if money is instead provided for new work.

Other advisory board members were frustrated that the document did not look at some options that might address technical issues, such as switching to a different glass form with a chemical composition that might prove more compatible with Hanford tank waste.

Maynard Plahuta, who represents Benton County on the board, said he did not expect information on a timeline and cost yet because all that is available is a conceptual design. Federal agencies are cautious about releasing information that could be interpreted as a commitment by Congress, he said.

"Clearly whatever happens at the Waste Treatment Plant, it is going to be further away and more expensive," said Tom Carpenter, who represents Hanford Challenge.

The framework basically delivers bad news, said Richard Bloom, who represents West Richland.

"There isn't a clear path forward for pretreatment of high-level waste. That's what the framework says," he said.

Sending waste with larger plutonium particles directly to the vitrification plant's High Level Waste Facility would avoid issues of an unplanned nuclear reaction at the plant's Pretreatment Facility, the report said. But that would be a later phase of work, and earlier phases could include bypassing the Pretreatment Facility with some low activity radioactive waste and designating some waste as transuranic and sending it to New Mexico.

Public support jeopardized

The advisory board's letter to DOE referred to President Obama's January 2009 memo to all federal agency heads, saying that his administration was committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government to ensure public trust and strengthen democracy.

Yet those assigned to the DOE secretarial technical review teams for the vitrification plant were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the board said.

Board members asked DOE to release a compilation of the recommendations made by the technical experts to Chu concerning the waste tanks and the vitrification plant. It also asked DOE to provide the topics the secretarial teams currently are reviewing for Moniz and a detailed timetable concerning the findings and recommendations for each team.

"It is always more constructive to engage stakeholders and the public early in the process and as it proceeds, rather than at the end when DOE resorts to a 'decide -- announce -- defend' mode of operation, which seriously jeopardizes public support for critical decisions," the board said.

No schedule or cost estimate

The vitrification plant project cannot continue to remain in its current state of flux, Hastings said in his letter, sent Friday to Moniz and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

"Without a finalized plan including a renegotiated consent decree, funding could be jeopardized, flexibility concerning budget control points will not be granted and momentum for this linchpin of Hanford's mission could be slowed even further," he said.

Moniz has given Hastings updates on plans, but achieving a path forward will require DOE to provide the state of Washington with information it needs to make informed decisions, Hastings said. Despite the court-enforced consent decree, there is no credible schedule or cost estimate.

This time the plan for the vitrification plant must be "workable and achievable," Hastings said.

Within months of the 2010 approval of the consent decree it was widely known that DOE could not meet its legal requirements, he said. The consent decree resolved a lawsuit brought by the states of Washington and Oregon, and with its deadlines now at risk, state and federal officials have been meeting to discuss a plan forward.

Construction and commissioning of the vitrification plant has long been budgeted at a steady $690 million annually and any deviation from that amount must be fully justified, carefully considered and openly discussed with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget before any new agreements are signed, he said.

Any plan that would shift money from other environmental cleanup work at Hanford to pay for the vitrification plant would be a step backward and would not be tolerated, he said.

He also would not consider any plan that would combine the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection with the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office. The Office of River Protection is responsible for waste tanks and the vitrification plant, and the Richland Operations Office is responsible for the rest of Hanford cleanup.

The Richland Operations Office cleanup of Hanford along the Columbia River, most of which should be completed in 2015, is one of DOE's greatest success stories, he said.

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

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