State, DOE reject each other's consent decree proposal

Tri-City HeraldApril 18, 2014 

senator ron wyden oregon hanford b reactor vit vitrification pl

Hanford single-shell Tank T-111 is potentially leaking up to 300 gallons of radioactive waste per year.


— Washington and the Department of Energy rejected each other’s competing proposals Friday to amend a court-enforced consent decree setting deadlines for Hanford environmental cleanup.

The state said DOE’s proposal did not give it confidence that work to empty waste from tanks and treat it for disposal would be completed as soon as possible.

DOE countered that the state’s proposal did not adequately account for the realities of technical issues at the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste. It also did not account for project management requirements and budget constraints.

DOE is committed to continuing to work with the state to develop an amendment acceptable to both agencies, DOE said, after earlier telling the state it is at risk of missing most remaining deadlines in the consent decree.

But the state appears ready to take further action.

“Today’s announcement should serve as notice to (DOE) that we are considering taking the next legal step as early as next week,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The 2010 consent decree allows either side to call for 40 days of negotiations if no proposal is accepted. If negotiations are unsuccessful, the state could go back to federal court to ask it to order DOE to implement the state’s plan, the state said.

DOE and the state agree there should be a phased startup of the Hanford vitrification plant to make sure waste is treated as soon as possible. Low-activity radioactive waste would be treated while work continues on parts of the vit plant that have technical issues related to high-level radioactive waste.

But DOE’s proposal for a phased approach “lacks specificity, accountability and enforceability,” the state said.

That could lead to further delays in retrieving waste from Hanford’s leak-prone underground waste tanks and completing the treatment of all 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks, the state said.

DOE’s proposal also does not go far enough, the state said. It fails to mitigate effects from the delay in startup of the entire vitrification plant.

A requirement that all single-shell tanks be emptied by 2040 and all waste treated by 2047 was based on the consent decree deadline to have the vitrification plant at full operations by 2022, the state said in a letter from the Office of Attorney General to the U.S. Justice Department.

“An acceptable path forward must be aggressive, but realistic, and give the state confidence that tank waste retrieval and treatment will be completed as soon as possible,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.

DOE has previously said that it would be irresponsible to set firm deadlines for work at the vitrification plant before technical issues are resolved and the agency has a clear idea of the work left to be completed.

That creates false expectations in the community and with the state and erodes confidence, Dave Huizenga, the senior adviser for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, said last week.

DOE’s proposal would set deadlines for emptying waste from some single-shell tanks and deadlines for treating waste at the vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility, which has no technical issues. Then it commits to negotiating and setting longer-term deadlines on a rolling schedule as technical issues are resolved in other areas.

But when those additional deadlines would be set would be left almost entirely in DOE’s control, leaving control over the pace of cleanup under DOE’s internal decision-making process, the state said.

The state’s proposal includes a lengthy and detailed list of requirements and deadlines to get cleanup back on track and have all waste in underground tanks treated by 2047.

Its requirements include having the Low Activity Waste Facility operating in 2019 and having 10 percent of the low-activity radioactive waste turned into a stable glass form for disposal by 2022. It would require the High Level Waste Facility to begin operating in 2026 and the Pretreatment Facility to begin operating in 2028.

The consent decree requires the vitrification plant to be fully operating in 2022.

The state’s proposed amendments also would require that up to eight new double-shell tanks be built, that additional liquid waste be emptied from single-shell tanks and that more barriers be built over underground tanks.

But those and other proposed new deadlines are outside the scope of the original consent decree, DOE said. They would extend the scope well beyond the original agreement for deadlines of initial operation of the vit plant and retrieval of waste from 19 tanks, DOE said in a letter to the state.

Some requirements also would supersede DOE’s ability to make decisions as provided in the Tri-Party Agreement, DOE said. And some appear to exert state regulatory authority over matters of nuclear safety that federal law gives responsibility for to the federal government.

The state disagreed that DOE has good cause for needing to amend the consent decree, which DOE said included technical issues, unforeseen safety concerns and labor shortages.

Some issues should have been identified earlier and DOE was slow to take action on other issues, the state said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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