Plutonium waste shipping deadline set

The first legal deadline for shipping plutonium-contaminated wastes from Hanford has been set under newly approved changes to the Tri-Party Agreement.

A package of new deadlines was tentatively agreed to this spring by the Department of Energy and its regulators to cover radioactive wastes that temporarily were buried in central Hanford since 1970.

On Friday DOE, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency announced an agreement had been signed following a public comment period.

In a key change that resulted from comments, DOE will have to treat or ship transuranic waste -- at Hanford typically debris contaminated with plutonium -- by sometime in 2030. In the tentative March agreement, DOE had until 2035 to do that work.

But the date was moved up because current projections anticipate that the nation's repository for transuranic waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, will stop accepting waste in late 2030. Work would then begin to close the repository.

The Tri-Party Agreement, which governs Hanford cleanup, had not previously had a deadline for shipping transuranic waste to the repository.

The changes also cover other deadlines for drums, boxes and cans of debris suspected of containing transuranic waste that DOE temporarily buried in central Hanford.

In 1970 Congress said transuranic wastes must be sent to a national repository. But until the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico opened, the waste was buried for later retrieval.

The previous deadlines were set in 2003, but regulators last year agreed to consider extending them, depending on how much federal economic stimulus money Hanford would receive. Of the $1.96 billion coming to the Hanford nuclear reservation, about $1.3 billion is being spent by CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., which does central Hanford and ground water cleanup.

What is being dug up varies widely, and officials have different sets of milestones for five types of waste groupings.

Two types of waste being retrieved are particularly difficult to handle. They include transuranic waste in large boxes, some about the size of a railcar, rather than the typical 55-gallon drums.

It also includes research waste packaged in paint-can-sized containers that is called "remote-handled" because it is too radioactively hot for workers to get near. Some of it was dropped down slanted chutes into 10-foot-tall boxes, or caissons, buried 14 feet deep.

Under the new deadlines, DOE is required to have all but the remote-handled waste that was temporarily buried dug up by Sept. 30, 2016. Remote-handled waste, including that in four caissons, would need to be dug up by the end of 2018.

DOE already has dug up two-thirds of the waste, most of which is not remote-handled. DOE would be required to have a conceptual design of facilities that will be used to process the waste in large boxes or needing remote handling by Sept. 30, 2016. A final design would be due two years later.

Under the old deadline, DOE needed to have completed the design for the technically challenging work a little more than two years from now.

Even before the conceptual design is completed, DOE would be required to start treating some of the difficult waste. Some progress may be possible using existing facilities at T Plant.

Temporarily buried waste that turns out to be low-level rather than transuranic waste must be treated for disposal by Sept. 30, 2017.

For the transuranic waste that is not in large containers and does not require remote handling, a series of deadlines are proposed with the waste shipped to New Mexico by Sept. 30, 2018. That gives DOE more time to prepare it for shipment, and to allow DOE to focus resources now on higher priority work along the river.

The changes also include some deadlines for cleanup progress in the next four years, but those dates are target dates rather than enforceable dates.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.