Obama proposes Hanford budget increase

The Democratic administration's proposed fiscal 2012 budget released Monday would increase funding for the Hanford nuclear reservation.

However, while the budget for work at the tank farms and the vitrification plant under the Department of Energy Office of River Protection would increase, money for the Richland Operations Office would decrease. It is responsible for the rest of Hanford work.

The proposed cut to cleanup funding for the Richland Operations Office would be in addition to the end of $1.96 billion in economic stimulus money, most of which went to projects under the Richland Operations Office.

Contractors doing that work already have announced they could lay off about 1,600 employees before the start of fiscal 2012 on Oct. 1.

The administration's budget proposal is an early step in the fiscal 2012 budget process, with the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate to start work on the budget next.

"At this moment, knowing the pressure in the House, these are pretty good numbers," said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council.

Few observers expect that Congress will do anything other than cut from the proposed budget, Hanford watchdog Heart of America Northwest said in a statement.

"In a difficult budget year, I'm pleased that the president has put forth a budget that takes steps to meet the legal obligations we have to clean up Hanford," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.

The proposed Hanford budget is $2.37 billion, which includes security and regulatory support for Hanford. That's up from $2.18 billion in fiscal 2010, which is the last budget Congress approved for Hanford.

The nuclear reservation is operating now under a continuing resolution for fiscal 2011, since Congress has not passed a budget for the current year.

The current continuing resolution expires March 4, and what happens next "is a much more imminent threat to funding," said Matt McAlvanah, a Murray aide.

The House's new proposed continuing resolution includes a cut of about $200 million to the DOE defense cleanup complex-wide. That would have to be absorbed in the remainder of this fiscal year, although specifics have not been released.

Under the administration's proposed 2012 budget, the Office of River Protection budget would increase to $1.36 billion from fiscal 2010, a jump of $265 million or 24 percent.

The increase reflects the high priority the DOE Office of Environmental Management has put on treating tank waste across the DOE complex.

The increased money at Hanford would be for work at the $12.2 billion vitrification plant that is being built to turn radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal. It also would be used to prepare the tank farm to deliver waste steadily and reliably to the vit plant for treatment.

The increase for the vit plant would be from $690 million in fiscal 2010 to $840 million in fiscal 2012. The budget request for the vit plant last year was $740 million.

"Increased funding for WTP (the Waste Treatment Plant or vitrification plant) is needed to support the increased confidence level to complete the project within budget and on schedule," the budget proposal said.

The proposed budget would support the start of glassification of low-activity radioactive waste at the vit plant in 2016, which is three years earlier than the entire plant is required to be operating and also treating high-level radioactive waste.

The budget for the tank farms is proposed as adequate to complete sludge retrieval from one of Hanford's 149 leak-prone single-shell tanks and to remove a layer of hard material left at the bottom of three additional single-shell tanks.

The budget request for all of Hanford combined is "certainly sufficient to keep cleanup progress moving forward," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement. But he has questions about the trade-off of increasing money for the vitrification plant at the expense of critical projects under the Richland Operations Office, he said.

Congress has acted correctly to rein in federal spending, Hastings said. But a distinction should be made between activities the government has a legal obligation to fund and those that are optional, he said.

"I'll continue advocating for steady, stable cleanup funding to meet the federal government's legal Hanford cleanup obligations just as I have for over 15 years," he said.

The budget for the Richland Operations Office would drop about $75 million, or 7 percent not counting economic stimulus money, from fiscal 2010, according to DOE's numbers.

The fiscal 2012 request, including about $90 million in security and regulatory support, comes to just over $1 billion.

That's down from $1.08 billion in fiscal 2010 and $1.04 billion that the office is spending this year to match the administration's budget request in fiscal 2011 since no fiscal 2011 budget has passed.

The administration's 2012 budget proposal for the Richland Operations Office makes cleanup and protection of ground water and environmental cleanup along the Columbia River a priority.

Together those projects would receive more than $550 million. Other decommissioning and demolition of contaminated buildings would hold a lower priority.

The proposed budget would be adequate to meet legal deadlines for environmental cleanup in fiscal 2012, according to DOE.

However, meeting Tri-Party Agreement deadlines in fiscal 2012 also could be dependent on how much money Hanford has to spend for the remainder of fiscal 2011.

"It's important to levelize funding so there are not big dips and valleys," Petersen said.

Murray said she will be questioning Jacob "Jack" Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, on the 2012 budget request and "will continue to work with the administration to ensure we have clear, consistent and compliant budgets moving forward."