A new presidential administration means the Tri-Cities community will again need to convince officials in Washington, D.C., of the need for pricey environmental cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Tim Peckinpaugh, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Tri-City Development Council, discussed the possible impact of the 2016 election at a TRIDEC lunch in Richland and with the Herald on Thursday.
He has concerns about the Hanford vitrification plant, which has cost and technical issues that will have to be explained to the Donald Trump administration, he said.
However, Tri-Cities officials have convinced new administrations before of the need for Hanford cleanup. And the area is fortunate to have strong leadership in Congress, Peckinpaugh said.
The vitrification plant, being built to turn radioactive waste into a stable glass form, is not expected to be fully operating for nearly two more decades because of technical issues.
The cost of the delay, coupled with changes and additional facilities planned to allow some waste to be treated as soon as 2022, has yet to be announced by the Department of Energy. The last verified cost estimate of $12.2 billion was released in 2006, when the plan was to start operations in 2019.
The last estimate for remaining cleanup of the entire Hanford nuclear reservation, plus some post-cleanup oversight, was about $108 billion, which does not factor in increasing costs at the vit plant.
The Department of Energy is likely to be led in the Trump administration by an energy secretary with a background in oil and natural gas, Peckinpaugh said. New officials are unlikely to be familiar with Hanford, which has an annual federal budget of more than $2 billion, or other DOE nuclear weapons cleanup sites.
It could seem logical for new Trump administration officials to ask if there is a better solution to the Hanford vitrification plant, Peckinpaugh said.
If Hanford officials have new ideas, new approaches or new technologies that are viable, now is the time to present them, he said.
We should be very grateful that (Sen.) Patty Murray is very friendly to our region.
Tim Peckinpaugh, TRIDEC lobbyist
The Tri-Cities faced senators in the early 1990s who questioned whether Hanford cleanup was necessary, looking at the possibility of just stabilizing the site. In 1994 there was a push to use Hanford cleanup money, which is authorized by the Armed Services Committee, for current defense needs instead.
Both times, the moral obligation to clean up contamination left from World War II and Cold War plutonium production prevailed.
In the coming year, even if the Trump team comes in suspicious of Hanford funding and looks for a re-evaluation, “our congressional team is good,” Peckinpaugh said.
“We should be very grateful that (Sen.) Patty Murray is very friendly to our region, helping us on key priorities for the Tri-Cities, because quite frankly she doesn’t need us,” he said.
Her votes come from elsewhere in the state, with Benton and Franklin county voters favoring her Republican opponent in the most recent election.
This week, she was named assistant Democratic leader, the third-ranking position in the Senate Democratic leadership.
Her fellow Washington state Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell, is the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., won a second term with 57 percent of the vote, giving him some seniority and appearing to set him up well for the future, Peckinpaugh said.
At the Tri-Cities’ other Department of Energy facility, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the diverse research conducted should help stabilize federal funding.
The lab has an annual budget of about $1 billion.
Some PNNL work, such as climate research, may be of less interest to the Trump administration, but there could be opportunities for more research related to homeland security and cybersecurity.
The Barack Obama administration has had a strong interest in renewable energy and climate science research, both done at the Richland lab, while the Trump administration is expected to be more interested in oil and gas exploration research.
The national lab could increase its research in other areas, such as defense, homeland security and cybersecurity, Peckinpaugh said.
The Trump administration will make budget requests, but Congress serves as a check, proposing and passing budgets that fund federal research.
The Yucca Mountain national repository in Nevada for used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive defense waste could be back on the table, he said.
The Obama administration shut down the project, which was planned to take Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste.
The Trans Pacific Partnership will not move forward, Peckinpaugh said. The trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim countries was intended to strengthen the economic ties among those countries by lowering tariffs and increasing trade.
Newhouse, who has supported the trade deal, said it was an avenue to increase market opportunities for Eastern Washington manufacturers, growers and processors, by reducing tariffs that drive up the costs of buying American goods in other countries.