DOE proposes faster ways to treat Hanford waste. Will it meet state standards?

James Owendoff, who is the acting leader of the Department of Energy cleanup work, is looking at ways to speed up the treatment of Hanford’s tank waste. Much of the waste is expected to be treated at the Waste Treatment Plant, shown in the fog.
James Owendoff, who is the acting leader of the Department of Energy cleanup work, is looking at ways to speed up the treatment of Hanford’s tank waste. Much of the waste is expected to be treated at the Waste Treatment Plant, shown in the fog. Courtesy Bechtel National

A key Department of Energy official is considering several projects that potentially could speed up treatment of 56 million gallons of Hanford waste.

However, the Washington Department of Ecology likely will need to approve of any of the initiatives, making sure they are protective of people and the environment, and adhere to state law.

James Owendoff, the acting assistant secretary for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, has been at Hanford this week after discussing possible initiatives with officials in Olympia last week.

He discussed the initiatives in August with Alex Smith, manager of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, which is a Hanford regulator. The discussions last week were elevated to Maia Bellon, Ecology’s director.

Nothing was decided at the meeting, said Randy Bradbury, spokesman for the Nuclear Waste Program.

Talks are expected to continue during the next couple of months between Ecology and DOE officials at Hanford to see if the two agencies can find any common ground, Bradbury said.

The discussion reportedly reflected, at least in part, the topics Owendoff listed in a letter he sent Bellon in September.

He wrote then that he’d like consideration of pausing work on parts of the vitrification plant that would handle high level radioactive tank waste, if it could be done without missing federal court-enforced deadlines.

Construction already has been paused on parts of the plant since 2012 because of technical issues.

But with some issues resolved some construction could theoretically restart.

HLW at vit plant
Sunlight shines through an opening above scaffolding installed in the Hanford vitrification plant’s High Level Waste Facility melter cave. Courtesy Bechtel National

Available money would instead be spent on accelerating work to treat low activity radioactive waste at other parts of the plant.

DOE faces a court-ordered deadline to start treating low activity waste by 2023 and high level waste by 2036.

Owendoff’s interested in a treating some of the 56 million gallons held in underground waste and shipping it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a national repository for DOE weapons-complex waste contaminated with certain levels of plutonium or other radionuclides classified as transuranic.

The proposal would depend in part on the waste being eligible for disposal at the repository.

The repository does not now accept Hanford tank waste.

Although Owendoff does not give specifics in his letter, DOE officials have said waste stored in 11 of Hanford’s 149 single-shell waste storage tanks could be considered transuranic.

Hanford Vit Plant is celebrating a milestone completed ahead of schedules at the waste treatment plant.

Most of the waste that has been sent to the New Mexico repository from Hanford is debris and old equipment contaminated with plutonium.

In addition, a Government Accountability Office report in May said that 4 million gallons of waste in the 11 tanks could be treated in ways that would cost less than vitrification if New Mexico would allow the waste to be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Owendoff also has proposed the possibility of using a technology at Hanford that now is being developed for DOE’s Savannah River, S.C., site.

The Tank Closure and Cesium Removal technology is being developed to pretreat waste at the tanks — rather than at a central facility — using an ion exchange method.

The Tank Closure and Cesium Technology would remove cesium from liquid waste to prepare it for treatment.

As it stands, that would be done at a facility being constructed near the vitrification plant that would be operating by 2023 or at the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility, which may not be operating until 2036.

Low activity radioactive waste is primarily liquid, but solids and radioactive cesium in the liquids are designated as high level radioactive waste and must be removed if the waste is treated as low activity waste.

The proposed technology could be helpful for waste stored in tanks seven miles from the vitrification plant.

Plans now call for pumping the waste through piping across those seven miles from the 200 West Area to the 200 East Area, where the vitrification plant will operate.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews