The Obama administration does not seem to be taking seriously its legal obligation to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Wednesday.
She disagreed with Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu as he answered questions about the Department of Energy's proposed fiscal 2012 budget at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.
Murray questioned not only the level of money proposed, but also DOE's focus on the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, to the potential exclusion of other important environmental cleanup projects.
"The Waste Treatment Plant is a priority," she said. "But we can't increase funding for that and decrease funding for other legal obligations."
DOE has proposed 2012 budget increases for national nuclear security, science research and advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy.
However, the budget for Hanford and other DOE environmental cleanup projects remains largely flat, even though that's the only area in which DOE has legal obligations, Murray said.
"It's disappointing," she said.
The Obama administration's proposed budget for Hanford would increase spending for the vitrification plant from $690 million in fiscal 2010 to $840 million in fiscal 2012. Hanford officials still are waiting to hear how much money will be available for the vit plant this fiscal year.
Overall, the proposed 2012 budget would increase spending for the Hanford Office of River Protection, which is responsible for the vit plant and the waste that will be treated at the vit plant, by 24 percent.
However, the Hanford Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for the rest of Hanford environmental cleanup, would see a budget decrease of $75 million, or 7 percent, in the proposed 2012 budget.
The president proposed increases in DOE money for nuclear security and for research and development to position the United States for future prosperity, Chu said. The fiscal 2012 budget for environmental cleanup will be adequate for DOE to meet its legal obligations in the coming couple of years, in part, because of work accomplished with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, he said.
"After that, it is a concern. I'll be honest with you there," Chu said.
"What we need to do is try to make the best technical assessment of the things that have the highest risk and get them off in the most efficient way possible," he said.
The vitrification plant budget is proposed to increase above the $690 million that DOE originally said was needed annually to move money planned to be budgeted in future years for the plant's construction and commissioning to earlier years when the need for money will be greater.
If DOE wants to move forward with the vit plant budget change, it needs to increase the nationwide environmental cleanup budget to reflect that and allow the nation to meet its legal obligations across the DOE complex, Murray said.
"And to be very frank with you, I just don't see that happening," she said.
Chu said there was a risk that the vitrification plant would go over budget, so money was diverted from other projects. The plant is expected to cost $12.2 billion and start operating in 2019.
The risk in going over budget is caused by not having the money when it is needed, which could push out work to later years, possibly putting the start date in jeopardy, DOE spokeswoman Carrie Meyer, said after the hearing.
Getting Hanford and other sites cleaned up as legally required needs to start with a DOE request for money that indicates environmental cleanup is a priority, Murray said.
"It is a legal obligation. It is a moral obligation. It is a real obligation," she said. "We have waste at the nuclear facility that is leaking toward the Columbia River."
The legal obligation of cleaning up Cold War waste is the government's third largest liability, Chu said.
DOE needs to develop a plan going forward through future administrations that looks at whether there are better ways to do work and how to best spend money, he said.