Hanford regulators will postpone some cleanup deadlines

Hanford regulators have agreed to let some interim environmental cleanup deadlines slide at the nuclear reservation to focus on the highest priority work, given the realities of the federal budget.

The changes are expected to allow work to continue to demolish the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which the Department of Energy heard during public comments should be a priority.

The new plan also retains the focus on completing cleanup along the Columbia River by 2015 and cleaning up contaminated ground water beneath Hanford.

When the Obama administration proposed a fiscal 2012 budget for Hanford, it included money to meet all legal deadlines, but not money to continue accelerated environmental cleanup work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant. Work had been accelerated there with federal economic stimulus money.

Stopping work in fiscal 2012, which starts Oct. 1, and then ramping the project back up in fiscal 2013 would require six to nine months of training for workers and the delay would add two to three years to the schedule and cost $100 million to $200 million more, DOE Hanford officials said in budget discussions this spring.

Although Congress has not passed a fiscal 2012 budget for Hanford, the House and Senate proposed budgets include an additional $20 million for work to continue at the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

However, more adjustments to the Hanford work plan are expected to be needed to keep work at the plant on the accelerated schedule.

DOE and its regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology, have agreed to revise the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement to change eight deadlines. All are considered interim or pacing deadlines because they are intended to keep work on track to make sure DOE meets later deadlines for completion of portions of Hanford cleanup.

Six of the deadlines are for work to characterize contaminated soil or ground water in central Hanford, which is required before making a decision on how environmental cleanup will be done. DOE has a legal deadline to make those central Hanford decisions by the end of 2016.

DOE still expects to meet the 2016 deadline, barring problems such as budget shortfalls, said Doug Shoop, deputy director of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

Two other interim milestones also will be delayed, although not for budget reasons. One is for the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which will allow more flexibility in the schedule to make work more efficient. The other is because of technical reasons related to a central Hanford water treatment plant under construction.

When it became apparent that work to dismantle the Plutonium Finishing Plant might have to stop in fiscal 2012 because of the Hanford budget, DOE formed a team to scrub every dollar in the budget.

Among the other savings identified was putting into a dormant state some facilities where waste is stored or prepared for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. That could include the Central Waste Complex, the Waste Receiving and Processing Facility and T Plant. Hanford debris contaminated with plutonium and classified as transuranic waste is sent to New Mexico for disposal.

In the past, crews have been kept there ready to ship waste. The last shipment of the transuranic waste made possible by federal economic stimulus money was sent in August. It brought the total shipments to 649.

The final deadline for transuranic waste shipments will not be affected, said Jane Hedges, manager of the Nuclear Waste Program of the state Department of Ecology.

The Tri-Party agencies expect to set new interim deadlines after the administration's fiscal 2013 budget is released in February, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the EPA.

The current budget proposal is good news, considering the nation's economic situation, he said. Hanford fared relatively well because of its good use of federal economic stimulus money, he said.

"We've gone a long way to convince the people east of the Mississippi that we can safely do cleanup work," Matt McCormick, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, said Thursday as the Hanford Advisory Board met in Seattle.

The House and Senate have proposed fiscal 2012 spending at the vitrification plant of $740 million rather than the $840 million requested by the Obama administration.

Decisions have yet to be made, but Scott Samuelson, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, told the Hanford Advisory Board that he suspected work at the vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility could be dialed back. In addition to budget issues, technical questions about the facility's mixing system still need to be answered, and DOE is moving forward with a large scale test.

"We will make as much lemonade out of slowing down as we can," he said.

The state has laid out its cleanup priorities, which include completing demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, continued progress on ground water cleanup, soil cleanup near the Columbia River and work to empty underground waste tanks and prepare the vitrification plant to treat the waste, said Polly Zehm, deputy director of the state Department of Ecology.

But "there will be some tough decisions in the future," she said.

* More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.