Inslee, Moniz to discuss Hanford amidst secrecy concerns

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 15, 2014 

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.

COURTESY BECHTEL NATIONAL

Expectations are high as the energy secretary meets Monday morning in Olympia with Gov. Jay Inslee to discuss what's next -- technically and legally -- for the Hanford vitrification plant.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz offered to make a trip out to talk to the governor and other state officials after the governor and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said they were being kept in the dark about federal plans to clean up Hanford radioactive waste.

The sentiment has become a familiar one.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., have said that DOE has failed to keep them informed about critically important Hanford activities or plans.

And it's a recurring complaint by the Hanford Advisory Board, which includes representatives of a variety of groups interested in the environmental cleanup.

Despite "concerted efforts," the state has failed to get details from the federal government about possible solutions it is considering to get up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste treated, Inslee and Ferguson said in a letter sent to Moniz and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

"Hazardous and radioactive waste held in unfit underground single-shell tanks, many of which have leaked, threatens the groundwater, the Columbia River and our public health," the letter said.

However, the federal government has told the state that it is at risk of missing all of the remaining deadlines in a 2010 court-enforced consent decree for the plant being built to glassify waste left from past weapons plutonium production.

'Pattern of delays'

The $12.3 billion vitrification plant is required to be operating in 2019 and at full operation in 2022.

DOE also may not have the last two single-shell tanks in a group called the C Tank Farm emptied by a consent-decree deadline of this fall, it has notified the state.

Inslee and Ferguson told the energy secretary they expected a proposal to amend the consent decree by the end of February and were expecting it to "contain the specificity, detail and comprehensiveness which has thus far not been provided."

"The pattern of delays and lack of specificity is troubling," Ferguson said during a visit to the Tri-Cities on March 4.

The state has consistently told DOE that it expects to see a recovery plan.

In September, DOE released what it called a "framework" for talking about retrieving and treating the waste now held in underground tanks, but it contained few technical details or information on cost or schedule.

"Energy has not provided a definitive proposed path forward for cleanup," Inslee and Ferguson told DOE and the Justice Department.

Both a proposal to amend the consent decree and more information on the framework are expected to be discussed Monday with Moniz.

The energy secretary made a formal reply to the governor Feb. 28 saying DOE was working to complete a proposal to amend the consent decree.

The delay in the Obama administration's budget request, which was not submitted to Congress until earlier this month, would require more time for the proposal to be completed, he said.

However, Moniz said he would personally discuss elements of the plan with the governor before formally delivering the proposal to the state.

Ferguson said during a recent visit to the Tri-Cities that "the time comes when you have to explore legal options" and the state is close to that.

The state and federal government would first go to dispute resolution and then the court could weigh in to enforce the consent decree.

Complaints of secrecy

DOE has been taking a close look at the vitrification plant and its technical issues since at least August 2012 when former Energy Secretary Steven Chu handpicked a group of experts to examine the plant's technical issues, including identifying what difficulties might not have yet have been identified.

Chu cleared his schedule for several days and met with the group at Hanford in September 2012.

That led to a plan announced two months later to create teams of specialists to look at technical issues and a separate evaluation of opportunities for more efficient or faster operations at the plant.

Little more was heard on work to resolve technical issues until the release of the framework report in September 2013, a year after Chu's visit.

Those assigned to the DOE secretarial technical review teams and Washington state technical experts were required to sign nondisclosure agreements.

But that did not sit well with some state officials and the Hanford Advisory Board.

Three months after the governor named Maia Bellon to be director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, she told DOE that the state was withdrawing from the confidentiality agreement over her concerns about openness.

The Hanford Advisory Board sent a formal letter of advice to DOE in December asking for an open and transparent process to resolve issues with the vitrification plant in response to the release of the framework document after a year of near-silence.

"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 directed for new work.

DOE responded with a brief letter saying it was working with the state on the framework to discuss a strategy to complete construction of the vitrification plant.

Some DOE officials have said that discussion would be limited as long as DOE faces potential legal action from the state over delays in treating waste, but that was not mentioned in the letter.

DOE adds briefings

The Hanford Advisory Board discussed the issue again at its meetings March 6 and 7 and told DOE in a formal letter that it "is dismayed that DOE has deliberated behind closed doors, excluding regulators, stakeholders and the public from its review of technical problems, possible solutions and possible paths to resolve these."

The letter said the board has expected to hear information on the sequencing of the startup of different facilities at the vitrification plant, the findings of the secretarial review teams, supporting information used to develop the framework, cost and schedule information and analysis of systemic design issues.

"Openness and transparency are essential for public trust and for good decision-making," the board said.

DOE has responded with more briefings for the advisory board, including presentations to its committees that included an outline of possible plans to develop two new facilities at Hanford to help the vitrification plant treat waste.

They include an underground pretreatment facility at the tank farms that would pretreat liquid waste and allow it to bypass the troubled Pretreatment Facility at the vit plant. The second facility would prepare waste to be sent to the vit plant, possibly resolving some of the problems at the Pretreatment Facility.

It might also allow some waste to be sent directly to the High Level Waste Facility, again bypassing the Pretreatment Facility.

While the briefings were met with enthusiasm, they do not appear to have resolved board member's concerns.

"I've seen no paperwork from the best and brightest committee," said board member Dick Smith, who represents Kennewick on the board. He said Chu spent 18 months thinking about the issue and presumably a report was written.

"But we know nothing about what they thought about, talked about or concluded," he said at the March board meeting.

Congressional concerns

Hastings also has taken up the issue of openness, telling Moniz and Inslee in a December letter that without a plan for the vitrification plant, money from Congress could be at risk.

"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.

The letter followed a speech he gave in April 2013 to the Energy Communities Alliance, saying DOE needed to increase transparency and answer basic questions about the vitrification plant if Congress is to continue to invest taxpayer money in the plant. His staff said Friday that he continues to have concerns.

Some of the strongest words to DOE have come from Wyden.

He learned in late February that a series of DOE reports completed as long ago as July raised possible issues about Hanford double-shell waste tanks beyond Tank AY-102, which is known to be leaking waste between its shells.

DOE led him to believe that issues were confined to Tank AY-102, he said. It also did not clearly identify and address the vulnerability of additional double-shell tanks in the framework document, he said.

"This kind of stonewalling is absolutely unacceptable," he said.

DOE said the reports that Wyden obtained reviewing the construction history of double-shell tanks had been cleared for public release and that there was no intent to withhold information.

However, the reports apparently had little if any release outside DOE.

Among those who had not reviewed the reports were state regulators for the double-shell tanks, according to Washington State Department of Ecology officials.

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