Hanford

Energy secretary questions if Hanford money is well spent

Employees walk around the Effluent Management Facility under construction at the Hanford vitrification plant. The building is needed to meet a 2023 deadline to start glassifying low-activity radioactive waste.
Employees walk around the Effluent Management Facility under construction at the Hanford vitrification plant. The building is needed to meet a 2023 deadline to start glassifying low-activity radioactive waste. Courtesy Bechtel National

Questions need to be answered about whether money is being well spent at the Hanford nuclear reservation, said Energy Secretary Rick Perry at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

Both Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., questioned Perry about spending cuts for environmental cleanup at Hanford included in a fiscal 2018 budget proposal from President Trump’s administration. Perry appeared at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

A discussion is needed on new ways to address the extensive contamination at Hanford and to “get outside the box of how historically the government has looked at it,” Perry said.

He wants to use his experience managing big projects as the Texas governor to make sure the taxpayer gets the best result for their money, he said.

“Yes, but this is a nuclear waste site,” Murray said. “It’s extremely dangerous.”

Over the last 25 years she has heard multiple energy secretaries say they are going to do something different at Hanford. The Tri-City-area deserves better than to hear that again, Murray said.

“There is absolutely no cheap way to do this and it has to get done,” she said. It is not a simple project and workers need to be protected from hazards at the site, she said.

None of us like to write checks for a lot of money, but the alternative is just not viable.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Hanford, which covers 580 square miles, is extensively contaminated with hazardous chemical and radioactive waste from the past production of much of the nation’s weapons program plutonium from World War II through the Cold War.

If environmental cleanup is not completed, radioactive waste will leak into the Columbia River, creating a larger problem than the nuclear reservation poses now, she said.

“None of us like to write checks for a lot of money, but the alternative is just not viable,” Murray said.

A series of complex legal agreements are in place to get Hanford cleanup up, and the federal government’s responsibility is to supply the money needed, she said.

“This is a community that helped our country win a world war and they do not deserve to have a nuclear waste site behind them, nor do they deserve to have people coming in every four years and say, ‘We are going to do something different,’ ” Murray said.

She asked Perry if he supports starting to treat some of Hanford’s 56 million gallons of radioactive waste by a court-enforced deadline of 2023. Low-activity radioactive waste would be treated initially while technical issues on handling high-level radioactive waste are resolved.

“Yes,” Perry answered.

“Well, you tell me how you will meet that,” Murray said.

The administration’s proposed budget for the project is essentially flat, despite a very clear demonstration of the need for increased money to meet the deadline, she said.

There is not enough action on the ground for the amount of money we spend, but apparently it is a very difficult issue.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Merkley questioned the budget for other work at Hanford under the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office that would take a hit of about $124 million, under the administration’s budget proposal.

The cut does not seem consistent with Perry’s statement during a confirmation hearing that he is committed to “prioritizing what is one of the most dangerous and polluted sites in the country,” Merkley said.

The tunnel holding radioactive waste at Hanford that partially collapsed last month has not been used for decades, yet has not been cleaned up, Merkley said.

The federal government made a “big mess” along the Columbia River at Hanford, yet decade after decade there appears to be virtually no cleanup done, he said.

“There is not enough action on the ground for the amount of money we spend, but apparently it is a very difficult issue,” Merkley said.

Murray said a substantial number of cleanup projects have been completed at Hanford, despite the work that remains. DOE says 15.6 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater have been treated, 977 waste sites have been cleaned up and 428 facilities demolished.

The proposed administration budget for Hanford in fiscal 2018 is $2.2 billion, plus additional money for security and cybersecurity. Long term projections call for about $108 billion still needed for most Hanford cleanup to be completed in 2060, plus some post cleanup oversight through 2090.

Murray submitted additional questions in writing to Perry on plans to slash funding for research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the administration’s proposal to privatize portions of the Bonneville Power Administration and the Columbia River Treaty.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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