The Department of Energy has proposed a promising approach to treating Hanford's low-activity radioactive waste held in underground tanks, Gov. Jay Inslee said during a press conference Thursday.
But he remains concerned about how DOE plans to treat the high-level radioactive waste held in the tanks, he said.
He may know more in mid-March, when Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is considering a visit to the state to meet with the governor and other leaders to discuss DOE's plans in detail.
Inslee sent a letter to Moniz and the Department of Justice earlier this month saying that the state expects answers by Friday on how DOE plans to clean up waste stored in underground tanks.
However, when the governor met with Moniz during a weekend visit to Washington, D.C., for a National Governors Association meeting, Moniz said he wanted to personally present a plan to Washington leaders, Inslee said.
The soonest the secretary could come west for a face-to-face meeting would be mid-March, according to Inslee. That would be after the Obama administration releases its federal budget request for fiscal 2015, which is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.
The governor has been frustrated about the lack of information DOE has released after saying it is at risk of missing all the remaining deadlines in a court-enforced consent decree for building and beginning operations at the vitrification plant. The $12.3 billion plant is planned to treat up to 56 million gallons of waste held in tanks.
DOE released a document it called a "framework" in September that outlined possible solutions, but the state has not received details on those solutions, the governor said in his letter to Moniz.
"We intend to be very diligent and resolute to make sure the federal government fulfills its obligations to us with the Waste Treatment Plant," or vitrification plant, Inslee said Thursday.
"We are at the time after waiting for months and months that we need a real solution with real deadlines (so) that we can have real confidence that the federal government is going to finally fulfill its obligation to us," he said.
The energy secretary seems to recognize how important the issue is to the state and the depth of the state's commitment to seeing the waste is treated, Inslee said.
DOE has discussed a plan to build a tank-side underground system that would separate the high-level radioactive waste from some liquid waste, which is mostly low-activity waste. Then the waste could be sent to the Low Activity Waste Facility at the vitrification plant to be turned into a stable glass form for disposal.
The waste would bypass the vit plant's Pretreatment Facility, which is planned to take solid and liquid waste from the tanks and separate it into high-level and low-activity waste streams for separate treatment.
Construction has stopped at the Pretreatment Facility to address technical issues that could affect the safe and efficient operation of the plant. Construction also has stopped on part of the High Level Waste Facility, which would turn high-level waste into a solid glass form, until technical issues are resolved.
Bypassing the Pretreatment Plant would allow some low-activity waste to be treated earlier.
Construction of the Low Activity Waste Facility, plus facilities needed to support it, could be finished in 2015. The vitrification plant is required under a court-enforced consent decree to be treating waste in 2019 and to be fully operating in 2022.
The plan to start treating low-activity waste while other facilities are still under construction appears to perhaps be technologically the right decision, the governor said.
"But we have to have a commitment that the high-level waste will be processed," he said. "(Moniz) is going to have to show us a real plan."
The framework document described a phased approach to treatment and said eventually some high-level radioactive waste also might be able to bypass the vit plant's Pretreatment Facility and be sent directly to the High Level Waste Facility. Sending waste with larger plutonium particles directly to the facility would avoid issues of an unplanned nuclear reaction at the Pretreatment Facility, the framework report said. However, some technical issues first would need to be resolved at the High Level Waste Facility.
The framework document did not include cost and schedule information for proposals.
Inslee told Moniz in the letter sent earlier this month that DOE and the Justice Department needed to provide the state with a proposal to amend the court-enforced consent decree and that it needed to be comprehensive.
"An acceptable path forward must also be aggressive but realistic," the letter said. "It must be a path that gives the state confidence that tank waste retrieval and treatment will be completed as soon as possible."
Pursuing legal action is a possibility, which could begin with dispute resolution, Inslee said, when asked at the press conference if that was an option.
"We have not made that decision yet, but the secretary I think knows ... we are about to the limits of our patience," he said.