The Department of Energy may not release a master plan for new Hanford contracts for a few months longer, according to information provided at a virtual question-and-answer session about Hanford environmental cleanup.
The new contracting strategy is expected to shape the way work that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars is divided up at the nuclear reservation and which companies will employ more than 6,000 Hanford workers over the next decade.
The contracting strategy was expected to be released in January, with a draft request for bids later this year, DOE said in fall 2016.
A question about the new contracts was among the several dozen that DOE and regulator officials answered Wednesday.
Doug Shoop, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, said Hanford officials are working with the office of the new energy secretary to release the strategy in the next several months.
All three major cleanup contracts — tank waste, central Hanford and sitewide support — expire in 2018 or 2019. The new strategy also is expected to include some smaller contracts, including for workers’ compensation administration.
“In theory, all should be in place by 2019,” Shoop said.
This was the first time Hanford has tried a virtual session, called Hanford Live, as a stand-in for the Hanford “State of the Site” meetings that were once held annually across the region to answer questions and update the public on progress on cleaning up the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation.
$50 billion spent on Hanford cleanup
$100 billion estimated cost of remaining cleanup
The online-only meeting appeared to be well-attended, with 174 people registering and more than 100 people watching the webinar for most of the two-hour session. People could also watch a live stream of the meeting on Facebook.
Questions came in from as far away as the United Kingdom and Japan.
Public comments were both for and against the online format. Some said it was convenient to watch from home, but others said speakers were not adequately addressing some questions with no one in the room to press them.
Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, said EPA will continue to advocate for in-person meetings.
Several of the questions focused on safety, including one that asked speakers whether they would want their children working at Hanford.
No problem, Faulk said, adding that workers are allowed to protect themselves as they see fit. He pointed out that he worked at Hanford before joining EPA.
Ben Harp, deputy manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, said extensive planning, knowledge of hazards and the expertise of employees make it one of the safest places to work.
Susan Leckband, chairwoman of the Hanford Advisory Board, said she worked at Hanford for 25 years and has a son who also worked there. She is concerned about the age of the work force. Just 4 percent to 5 percent of workers are in their 20s, she said.
DOE officials have been criticized for making it too difficult for ill workers to be approved for compensation by the state Department of Labor and Industries.
It is probably the largest, most complex facility DOE will ever demolish.
Doug Shoop, manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office
Hanford officials have been working with senior labor leaders and the state to address concerns, Shoop said. Then improvements must be institutionalized to make sure they remain in place.
Few answers on Hanford budget issues were available, as the site continues at fiscal 2016 budget levels with no fiscal 2017 budget approved by Congress. President Trump has yet to release a detailed DOE budget for fiscal 2018.
But the Trump administration has discussed deep cuts for EPA, one of the regulators of DOE at Hanford. The agency helps make sure that cleanup progresses on schedule and meets standards.
Faulk said Hanford is a high priority for EPA in the Northwest and he does not anticipate any changes in Hanford oversight.
Hanford officials had plenty of good news to share at the meeting this year.
Much of the cleanup along the Columbia River was completed in the last year and significant progress has been made on the remaining projects there.
Shoop expects to have cleanup of the high-hazard 618-10 Burial Ground near Richland finished this year and to start moving radioactive sludge from a basin near the Columbia River to central Hanford next year, he said.
DOE is following a strategy of Hanford of cleaning up the 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation from the outside in, ending with about 10 square miles at its center.
The Plutonium Finishing Plant also should be torn down this year.
“It is probably the largest, most complex facility DOE will ever demolish,” he said.
Taxpayers have spent about $50 billion on Hanford environmental cleanup, with about $100 billion of cleanup still needed, most of that in the center of the nuclear reservation, Shoop said.
Progress has included shrinking the contaminated groundwater beneath Hanford from plumes measuring 160 square miles to not too much more than half that size, Faulk said.
About 1,000 soil waste sites have been cleaned up, with about 1,000 left to go in central Hanford, he said.
Shoop described the cleanup strategy as working from the outside in, with the security buffer area around the production area of Hanford already cleaned up. After cleanup along the river is wrapped up, work will focus on the remaining, heavily contaminated areas of central Hanford.
Central Hanford is home to 177 underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of waste that will be treated for disposal at the vitrification plant, which is under construction.