DOE pitches new Hanford deadlines

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 14, 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

Washington and the federal Department of Energy have found some common ground on a plan to start treating Hanford tank waste for disposal as soon as possible, a top DOE official said Monday.

David Huizenga, who leads DOE's environmental cleanup efforts nationwide, spoke to the Herald in an interview Monday and to about 100 people at a public meeting in Richland. DOE called the town hall meeting to present its proposal to revise a court-enforced consent decree.

The state also has submitted a competing proposal to DOE. The two agencies have fundamental disagreements on the need to set long-term deadlines, but they have enough agreement on the general approach to continue discussion, said Huizenga, senior adviser for DOE's Office of Environmental Management.

"There is a lot more commonality here then might initially meet the eye," he said.

The 2010 consent decree set deadlines for emptying some of Hanford's underground waste tanks and starting to treat up to 56 million gallons of waste at the Hanford vitrification plant. But DOE has said most of the remaining deadlines are at risk of being missed. Technical -- and to a lesser extent budget -- issues have caused delays that put vitrification plant deadlines at risk, including having the plant fully operational by 2022.

The state's new proposal would set rigid deadlines for emptying leak-prone tanks and getting the vitrification plant built and operating, including dozens of pacing deadlines to keep projects on schedule.

But DOE wants to set deadlines only for retrieving waste from leak-prone tanks and on parts of the vitrification plant not affected by technical issues that could prevent the plant from operating safely or efficiently.

"We will set future milestones when the time is right," Huizenga said, but setting dates when DOE does not have technical issues resolved would not be responsible or defensible.

"We do not want to set them prematurely and create false expectations in the community and with the state," he said. "Ultimately that erodes confidence."

But both DOE and the state do agree on a strategy to start turning some tank waste into a stable glass form as soon as possible, while work continues to resolve technical issues elsewhere at the vitrification plant, Huizenga said.

"A phased approach is the best approach," he said.

The plan calls for operating the Low Activity Waste Facility while work continues at the vitrification plant's two facilities -- the Pretreatment Facility and the High Level Waste Facility -- that have technical issues.

To feed some liquid waste to the Low Activity Waste Facility, DOE and the state agree that a pretreatment facility just for that waste would need to be built to allow waste to be treated before the vit plant's Pretreatment Facility is operating. It could use off-the-shelf technology, such as that employed to treat waste at Fukushima, Japan, Huizenga said.

The plan would allow low-activity waste treatment to begin by the end of 2022, one of the deadlines DOE is proposing.

It also would free up space in Hanford's double-shell tanks before the Pretreatment Facility is operating.

The state also is supportive of DOE's plan to build a standalone facility, the Tank Waste Characterization and Staging Facility, that would resolve some technical issues for the vit plant, Huizenga said. It would make sure waste fed to the Pretreatment Facility is properly mixed and has physical characteristics that can be safely processed by the Pretreatment Facility and High Level Waste Facility.

The standalone facility also would have the additional benefit of adding several hundred thousands of gallons of storage and staging space for waste to be fed to the vitrification plant, Huizenga said.

DOE is currently emptying leak-prone single-shell tanks into a limited number of double-shell tanks until the waste can be treated for disposal. The double-shell tanks already were nearing capacity before the oldest, which is just past the 40 years it was designed to hold waste, was discovered to be leaking between its shells. The state has ordered that tank emptied.

The state's proposal calls for DOE to build at least eight more double-shell tanks.

But DOE has no immediate plan to build more tanks for the single purpose of providing leak-proof waste storage capabilities. Instead, it continues to monitor double-shell tanks and assess risk.

"We try to keep our eyes on the ball," Huizenga said.

That includes focusing on getting low-activity waste treated as soon as possible -- which frees up double-shell tank space -- rather than spending the limited budget on building more tanks, he said.

Although questions were asked at the public meeting about how much DOE's revised approach to treating waste would cost, no numbers were given.

Huizenga said DOE has discussed costs for the next five years with the Office of Management and Budget.

"I wish it did not cost any more," Huizenga said. "We don't have a choice. We are going to bring the plant up and operate it and we will find the resources to make it happen."

DOE officials at the meeting also had no firm answer on when all tank waste would be treated for disposal.

But Kevin Smith, the manager for the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, said work is being done to increase the amount of waste loaded into the canisters of glass that will be produced. Those possible enhancements have not been made public while they are being reviewed by experts, he said.

The deadline for the state and DOE to consider each other's consent decree proposals has been extended until Friday.

If a consent decree proposal is not accepted, either agency may request dispute resolution, which could last 40 days. Then either party could ask a judge to intervene.

In a related matter, DOE has not provided Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, a plan to address double-shell tank construction issues. He requested the plan by Monday after obtaining a partially completed series of studies. Construction issues were partially blamed for the interior leak in Hanford's oldest double-shell tank.

"The more concerning issue is that DOE's recent plan for Hanford cleanup shows no recognition that these tanks may not be available to provide space for retrievals of waste from the leaking single-shell tanks or alternatives to the delayed (vitrification) plant," Wyden said Monday. "This is another case of DOE seeming to stick its head in the radioactive sand."

DOE said in a statement that it has reviewed the issues Wyden raised and is preparing a response.

DOE only recently completed the final review of the double-shell tanks. It is continuing to inspect and monitor them, it said.

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

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