Governor wants answers from DOE on Hanford cleanup

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 15, 2014 

The state expects answers by the end of the month after being kept in the dark about federal plans to clean up Hanford radioactive waste held in underground tanks, said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

"There is a growing level of frustration on the lack of information coming from the Department of Energy," Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee, said late last week.

Despite "concerted efforts," the state has failed to get details from the federal government about possible solutions outlined in a document the Department of Energy called a "framework" that was released in September, said a letter signed by the governor.

The letter, which also was signed by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, was sent to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Federal officials told state representatives that DOE and the Justice Department would provide the state with a proposal by the end of this month to amend a court-enforced consent decree setting deadlines for tank waste cleanup, the letter said.

However, the federal government has notified the state that it may not be able to meet most remaining deadlines in the consent decree signed in 2010 to settle a lawsuit brought by the state of Washington and joined by the state of Oregon. The consent decree set new deadlines to replace some of those in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement that DOE already had missed or had no hope of meeting despite repeated extensions.

All remaining consent decree deadlines for the $12.2 billion vitrification plant under construction at Hanford are at serious risk of being missed, DOE has told the state. The plant is intended to treat much of the 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks from the past production of weapons plutonium. The plant is required to begin operating in 2019 and be at full operation in 2022.

In addition, DOE has said that it may not have two of 16 underground waste tanks in the group called the C Tank Farm emptied by a deadline of Sept. 30. Six of the tanks have not been declared empty yet. Waste in leak-prone single-shell tanks is being emptied into newer double-shell tanks until it can be treated for disposal.

The framework document outlines a possible path forward, as some construction at the vitrification plant has been stopped because of technical issues that need to be resolved to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the plant. All construction has stopped at the Pretreatment Facility and some construction has stopped at the High Level Waste Facility.

The framework document proposed a phased approach to advance waste treatment and disposal, but gave few technical, cost or schedule details.

It proposed initially pretreating some of the waste before it is sent to the vitrification plant for treatment at the Low Activity Waste Facility, allowing it to bypass the troubled 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.

The state and federal agencies have met three times to discuss the framework document and to review the consent decree, but "many important details still have not been provided and our questions remain unanswered," Smith said.

Inslee and Ferguson not only expect to see a proposal to amend the consent decree by the end of the month, but expect it to comprehensively address all consent decree and Tri-Party Agreement requirements for tank waste retrieval and treatment, according to the letter.

"An acceptable path forward must also be aggressive but realistic," the letter said. "It must be a path that gives the state confidence that tank waste retrieval and treatment will be completed as soon as possible."

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

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