Energy Secretary Steven Chu acknowledged there is a risk the Hanford vitrification plant might not be operating as scheduled in 2019, under questioning Thursday by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
But he said he had confidence DOE had the best possible management team in place to oversee work on the plant.
Chu testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the Obama administration's budget request for the Department of Energy in fiscal 2013, which reduces vitrification plant funding to $690 million.
That's the amount in the original budget plan for the $12.2 billion plant, which called for steady funding for the plant over a decade. But a revised spending plan called for more money to be moved to earlier years to address technical issues and to help with peak construction years.
"That funding profile is not in the cards anymore because of our budgets," Chu said. "So because of that, we know that there is a risk that could slip (the) schedule."
The new funding plan had called for $970 million for the vitrification plant in fiscal 2013, which is $280 million more than the administration's budget request. It also is down $50 million from spending in the current year.
However, the budget request would increase spending at the Hanford tank farms by $40 million, primarily to prepare to feed the tank farm waste to the vitrification plant once it starts operating.
The tank farms store in underground tanks 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium. Much of the waste is planned to be turned into a stable glass form at the vitrification plant.
"We are also having to prioritize and make sure that the waste tank farms are cared for as well," Chu said. "It's a tough decision and as you well know we take these responsibilities very seriously."
Chu also briefly discussed technical issues at the vitrification plant, implying that those also are potentially affecting the plant's schedule. DOE has acknowledged it would be prudent to do more comprehensive testing of vit plant mixing issues and that is being done, he said.
Questions have been raised about whether high-level waste will remain adequately mixed in the plant to prevent the possibility of a criticality or build up of high-level radioactive waste. Once the plant begins operating, it will be too radioactively hot to fix structural issues, Cantwell said.
DOE needs the right oversight to address technical issues raised by whistleblowers, she said.
DOE has its A-team in place to direct oversight of contractors, Chu said.
Dale Knutson, DOE's project director, is "a truly outstanding project manager" with a long track record, he said. Chu also praised Scott Samuelson, manager of the DOE Office of River Protection at Hanford, researchers working on the project and Dave Huezinga, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary as senior advisor for the DOE Office of Environmental Management.
"Because of the importance of this project, a lot of these discussions go right into my office," Chu said. "I've spoken to the CEO of the head contractor, Bechtel -- Riley Bechtel -- probably now four times in my office on making sure that he too has an A-team as the contractor. And from my discussions with the people on the ground, they say that Bechtel also has been doing their job in trying to get the right people there."
Cantwell also asked for more information on whether the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico might be a possible place for disposal of Hanford's vitrified and other high-level waste. The waste was planned to go to Yucca Mountain, Nev., before the Obama administration shut down work to develop the repository.
Defense high-level radioactive waste and used commercial nuclear fuel were planned to go to Yucca Mountain.
It would be prudent to treat defense and commercial fuel waste differently, Chu said. If the New Mexico repository, which accepts Hanford debris contaminated with plutonium, is considered for high-level radioactive waste, studies would need to be done to make sure it's safe, he said.
The repository is an example of the United States' ability to develop repositories that have the acceptance of local people, he said. It's good for the local and state economy, he said.
Cantwell also asked Chu to follow up with her on progress to shift some unneeded Hanford land to Tri-City-area agencies to develop energy parks and create jobs to replace some of those lost at Hanford as environmental cleanup advances.