‘Dangerous and destructive.’ That’s how board describes Hanford’s funding trend

Hanford could need annual budgets of up to $4 billion in about five years as it finishes construction of the Pretreatment Facility at the vitrification plant while operating other parts of the plant to treat radioactive waste, according to some projections.
Hanford could need annual budgets of up to $4 billion in about five years as it finishes construction of the Pretreatment Facility at the vitrification plant while operating other parts of the plant to treat radioactive waste, according to some projections. Courtesy Bechtel National

With a projected need for five years of $4 billion annual budgets for the Hanford nuclear reservation, the Hanford Advisory Board is urging the Department of Energy to propose a ramp up in funding to Congress and the White House.

It called the current funding trend “dangerous and destructive” in a letter of advice sent to DOE at the conclusion of a two-day meeting Thursday in Richland. The board is composed of a broad representation of Tri-City and Northwest interests.

Last month, Stacy Charboneau, the DOE headquarters official who oversees Hanford and other environmental cleanup field operations across the nation, warned that Hanford cannot expect significant increases in its budget, which now ranges annually from $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion.

But under current plans, once the vitrification plant starts treating low activity radioactive waste, more money will be needed for waste treatment operations while construction continues on other parts of the plant needed to treat high level radioactive waste. Low activity waste treatment could begin as soon as 2022.

In addition, there will be increased work needed to retrieve radioactive waste from underground storage tanks and feed it to the facilities that will process low activity radioactive waste into glass logs for disposal.

PRF restart
Work continues to demolish Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant, with demolition now being done at the Plutonium Reclamation Facility at one end of the plant. Courtesy DOE

The cost of the vitrification plant and tank farm work, plus $1.2 billion needed to meet legal deadlines for the rest of the nuclear reservation’s cleanup and for general operations, has been estimated at $4 billion for approximately 2022-27.

The advisory board called for a steady ramp up to that amount.

“It is the only way to help avert a major catastrophe, reduce overall costs and risks to workers, the public and the environment,” the board told DOE.

It also asked for more money to establish new storage capacity for the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks above groundwater that flows toward the Columbia River.

Hanford now has just 27 double shell tanks in service to hold waste emptied from leak-prone single shell tanks until the waste can be treated for disposal. The oldest double shell tank was taken out of service after it sprang multiple leaks between its shells, and other double shell tanks are at risk, according to the board.

DOE has resisted calls to build more double shell tanks, saying the money could better be spent on advancing environmental cleanup needed after the past production of plutonium at Hanford for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

The board said it has become increasingly concerned about inadequate funding for a wide range of Hanford work, leading to the delay of cleanup projects, sometimes for decades.

“Many of Hanford’s hazardous buildings and storage facilities are 50 to 70 years old,” the board said.

Delaying work increases the cost of Hanford cleanup, both because of the large amount of money spent on maintenance and because degrading facilities increase the risk of significant accidents, the board said.

An earthquake could cause underground tanks to fail, resulting in widespread contamination to the groundwater, the board said.

redox roof
The roof of the defunct REDOX processing plant has been replaced at Hanford to protect the highly contaminated plant until it can be demolished. Workers pre-assembled the roof structure before it was installed. Courtesy Department of Energy

The leak within Hanford’s oldest double shell tank, AY-102, resulted in $100 million being spent to empty the tank, including 500,000 hours of labor over three years and 30,000 worker entries into the tank farms.

In May, a PUREX plant tunnel storing highly radioactive waste was discovered partially collapsed and a second, longer storage tunnel at the plant was determined to be structurally unsound.

The roof of the defunct, 470-foot-long, highly contaminated REDOX processing plant recently had to be replaced to keep the plant from deteriorating until it can be cleaned up.

“These and many other hazards at Hanford will only increase with time as the facilities continue to age and degrade,” the board said.

Important cleanup work is being done, including demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant and preparations to move radioactive cesium and strontium capsules out of an underwater pool to safer dry storage, the board said.

“Even as important as these projects are, each took longer than necessary because of serious constraints on funding,” the board said.

It called on DOE to develop an emergency plan with funding in case of a major tank failure. It also should have money available at a national level for incidents like the leaking double shell tank or the PUREX tunnel breach so that future incidents do not reduce money already budgeted for planned cleanup work, the board said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews