Retiring Hanford manager reflects on land use, successes

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 10, 2014 

The Department of Energy needs to move quickly to name a strong new co-manager for the Hanford nuclear reservation, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a letter Tuesday to DOE.

Hanford's Richland Operations Office needs a manager who can hold firm on legal commitments made by DOE in the Tri-Party Agreement, Hastings said. They must communicate and collaborate with the local community as decisions are made, and keep in mind the public's desire to have access to Hanford land as areas are cleaned up.

The position is vacant this week after the retirement of Matt McCormick. He managed the Richland Operations Office, which was responsible for all Hanford work except for tank waste retrieval and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste.

After 70 years of plutonium production and then cleanup of contaminated Hanford land, officials are discussing turning land back to the community, McCormick told the Herald editorial board on his last day of work.

The 1,600 acres requested for industrial use just north of Richland is undergoing two required reviews, he said.

One study is for radioactive contamination, but none has been found yet on acreage that had little use. The second is a cultural survey required by the National Historic Preservation Act, with consultation with area tribes.

Much of the land being considered was owned by farmers and investors who were given 30 days notice to leave by the federal government to make way for the plutonium-production complex in World War II.

"It is really giving back to the community what we took," McCormick said.

Most Hanford land is planned to be used for conservation and preservation, and DOE is interested in some controlled access to newly cleaned up land along the Columbia River near the old Hanford town site upriver five miles to F Reactor sooner rather than later, McCormick said.

McCormick does not foresee any transfer in the near term of additional lands to the Hanford Reach National Monument, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.

DOE is working with Fish and Wildlife to understand areas that should be protected, such as habitat for a large colony of bats that controls mosquitoes, he said.

"But in terms of more land to the monument, I don't think it's the right time because we are still doing cleanup in the central plateau," he said.

Once land use is better institutionalized, that's the time to consider with the community whether to expand the monument, he said.

McCormick, who came to Hanford in 2000 and was named manager in 2010, is most proud of being a part of getting weapons-grade plutonium shipped off Hanford and consolidated at DOE's Savannah River, S.C., site, he said. The move not only removed plutonium from the Northwest, but freed up money that had been spent on heavy security.

Progress on groundwater cleanup was another major accomplishment, he said. With the addition of more groundwater treatment plants in recent years, Hanford is now treating enough water to cover a football field 500 feet deep every month.

Hanford also is close to declaring victory on chromium entering the Columbia River, he said. For the first time since reactors began operating, chromium will be below limits set by regulators at the river's edge.

His biggest disappointment is the failure to get radioactive sludge out of the K Basins near the Columbia River. The sludge has proved difficult to deal with and there have been many starts and stops, he said.

But lessons have been learned and he has confidence that rigorous testing and design work will allow the project to move forward.

"I think we've driven the proverbial wooden stake through the heart," he said.

The Richland Operations Office has a reputation for getting work done safely and cost effectively, Hastings said in his letter to David Huizenga, DOE's top official for environmental cleanup.

But many challenges remain under the Richland Operations Office, including K Basin sludge, Hastings said. He also listed moving radioactive cesium and strontium to dry storage; the high-risk 618-10 and -11 Burial Grounds; the highly radioactive spill under the 324 Building just north of Richland; expanding groundwater treatment; retrieving temporarily buried waste contaminated with plutonium; cleaning up contamination deep underground and tearing down five massive chemical processing plants.

Given seemingly growing budget limitations, the Richland Operations Office will need a manager able to advocate for the office's cleanup needs, Hastings said.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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