How Hanford is cleaned up could change under federal review

Concrete and rebar walls are installed at the top of the High Level Waste Facility at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant. Legal deadlines for the plant’s operation would require annual Hanford budgets as high as $4 billion.
Concrete and rebar walls are installed at the top of the High Level Waste Facility at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant. Legal deadlines for the plant’s operation would require annual Hanford budgets as high as $4 billion. Courtesy Bechtel National

The Hanford-area community will be allowed to weigh in as the Department of Energy considers possible shifts in how environmental cleanup is done at Hanford, according to a DOE official based in Washington, D.C.

Hanford leaders have been instructed to discuss proposals that came out of a completed 45-day review that began in late June with elected officials, Hanford regulators and those interested in the nuclear reservation, said Stacy Charboneau, associate principal deputy assistant secretary for field operations at the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management in Washington, D.C.

Charboneau — a former manager of both of DOE’s Hanford offices that oversee cleanup at the nuclear reservation — spoke at a Kennewick meeting last week of the national Environmental Management Site Specific Advisory Board Chairs.

The 45-day review was put in motion by James Owendoff after he was named the acting leader of the DOE Office of Environmental Management in June.

He asked the 1,400 employees of the DOE office, including those based at Hanford, for any and all ideas they had for environmental cleanup.

With the review completed, a list of decisions that DOE is considering has not been released. No specific plans for public involvement have been released, but the Hanford Advisory Board is expecting to be briefed.

At Hanford, one of the projects that may be considered is whether some of the low-activity radioactive waste held in underground tanks should be grouted for disposal rather than turned into a glass form at the vitrification plant under construction.

In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying that grouting some of the Hanford tank waste would save money and could allow the waste to be treated sooner.

DOE had estimated in 2004 that allowing some of the waste at its Savannah River, S.C., site to be grouted rather than vitrified would save $55 billion.

Owendoff has talked specifically about the review as it relates to the vitrification plant under construction.

He has said that timely decisions need to be made to push forward the goal of using the plant to treat some low-activity radioactive waste as soon as 2022. The plant, which eventually will also treat the high-level radioactive waste in Hanford’s storage tanks, was not designed to treat all of Hanford’s low-activity radioactive waste in a reasonable time period.

“What I am looking at is how we can be more timely in our decision-making,” Owendoff said about the 45-day review in a DOE publication. “I believe that just by inherently making timely decisions, that in and of itself it reduces costs because you get on with implementing a particular decision.”

He also said at a DOE contracting forum in July that “the major thing we’re challenged with is timely decisions.”

That includes the area of contracting, he said. Hanford has multi-billion-dollar cleanup contracts expiring in 2018 and 2019.

DOE will not be forcing a national cleanup standard on local communities, Charboneau said.

But Owendoff pointed out in a recent national cleanup workshop that budgets and resources are limited, she said. Consideration has to be given to how to do the best environmental cleanup with the funds available.

“This administration has been fully supporting of the EM (environmental management) program,” Charboneau said.

It rightly treats cleanup as a legacy of the defense program, she said. Hanford produced plutonium in World War II and the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

But Hanford cannot expect significant increases in its budget, which now ranges annually from about $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion, she said.

The Hanford-area communities will have to look past previous promises that as cleanup is completed at other nuclear defense sites that cleanup money will be shifted to sites like Hanford with more cleanup to be done, she said.

“We have got to look at what to do at Hanford for $2.2 billion that does not take us to 2090 (to complete cleanup),” she said.

Problems are compounded across the DOE complex by deteriorating infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, with decades more needed to complete cleanup. Run to failure is not an option at many sites, she said.

With 50 to 70 percent of the budget at any site going for overhead costs ranging from security to maintaining safe operations to infrastructure, spending significantly more money on replacing infrastructure instead of cleanup adds significant longterm costs to cleanup, she said.

“We need to figure out how to be done with cleanup at these sites or we are going to be investing primarily infrastructure or maintenance and not getting to cleanup activities,” she said.

At Hanford, the new consent decree deadlines set by a federal court push out the full start of the vitrification plant for treatment of high level radioactive waste by 14 years to 2036.

“Fourteen years of Hanford operations is $28 billion,” she said.

To meet consent decree requirements, the Hanford budget would have to be well above current spending at $4 billion in peak years, she said. That figure is not realistic, she said.

“We need to find some better answers. That is what Jim (Owendoff) is about,” she said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews