The Department of Energy soon should have a clear and comprehensive plan in place to get leak-prone, underground waste tanks emptied and the vitrification plant ready to treat the waste for disposal, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Thursday.
She toured Hanford, seeing work at the tank farms, where 56 million gallons of radioactive waste are held in underground tanks, and at the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste.
For a year she's called for a comprehensive plan, she said, and is confident she will see it in a matter of months.
"I left feeling everyone is focused on this," she told the Herald after the tour.
New Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has made Hanford a top priority and is spending a great deal of energy on its issues, she said. He is expected to visit the nuclear reservation very soon, she said. Days in mid to late June are being considered, but no date is confirmed.
Hanford officials are contending with six single-shell tanks, some dating back to World War II, newly discovered to be leaking radioactive waste into the ground. The waste in the site's 149 single-shell tanks is being emptied into 28 newer double-shell tanks.
However, the oldest of the double-shell tanks, which has held waste for more than the 40 years it was designed to last, has developed a leak that is contained within the two walls of the tank.
DOE is expected to provide a report to the Washington state Department of Ecology by June 14 on whether the waste should be pumped from double-shell Tank AY-102 into a sturdier double-shell tank and how that could be done. Among factors that must be considered is how that might affect the limited space left in the double-shell tanks to accept waste being retrieved from leak-prone single-shell tanks.
In addition, the previous energy secretary, Steven Chu, had formed teams of experts who are still working to address technical issues at the vitrification plant, including keeping waste well mixed to prevent an unplanned nuclear reaction, looking at the design for areas planned to be too radiologically hot for workers to enter to do repairs and preventing metal erosion and corrosion that could limit the life of the plant.
Until technical issues are resolved, construction has stopped at the largest building at the vitrification plant, the Pretreatment Facility.
Addressing the leaking single-shell tanks will take time, but they are leaking slowly, Murray said. Previously, an estimated 1 million gallons of radioactive waste has leaked or spilled at the tank farms. The tanks currently known to be leaking are losing less than three gallons of waste a month.
DOE has a plan to deal with already contaminated groundwater there, Murray said. She toured Hanford's newest and largest groundwater treatment plant, the 200 West Pump and Treat System, which can treat up to 2,500 gallons of contaminated water a minute.
The plant was built with federal economic Recovery Act money, after Murray worked to get almost $2 billion in economic stimulus money for Hanford.
Tank leaks add new urgency to work to get single-shell tanks emptied, but plans need to be realistic and address safety and technical issues, she said.
"We do not want to get it wrong and create other problems," such as endangering worker safety, she said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, both Democrats, called this winter for more tanks to be built at Hanford after the leak inside the double-shell tank was discovered. But Murray has taken a wait-and-see approach.
"Building new tanks would be very complex and very expensive," she said. A decision should not be made until DOE has completed its plan to address tank waste retrieval and vitrification plant issues, she said.
She was assured by Kevin Smith and Matt McCormick, the managers of the two Hanford DOE offices, that money to solve issues at the tank farms and vitrification plant will not come at the expense of other work at Hanford, she said.
But the dire budget situation cannot be ignored, she said. As chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, she's worked to pass a budget and her top priority in negotiations is to replace automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, in the fiscal 2014 budget, she said.
Sequestration caused 235 Hanford workers to be laid off and caused furloughs, or required paid or unpaid time off, for about 2,500 Hanford workers.
"Sequestration does have an impact on getting work done right," Murray said. Hanford can have good plans, but without competent workers in place, the environmental cleanup will not get done, she said.
Although 235 workers were laid off this spring because of sequestration, Murray worked to get money not immediately needed for the vitrification plant moved into the tank farm budget, and 100 workers are expected to be hired there in June.