Technology could stop skyrocketing Hanford costs. It could also go wrong

Developing new technology might help drop the $150 billion remaining cost of environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Developing new technology might help drop the $150 billion remaining cost of environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Tri-City Herald File

Some of the most challenging environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation will be difficult to do — and do well — without technology that does not yet exist., a National Academy of Sciences panel heard when it asked for input on technology needs.

But the development of new technology must not come at the expense of ongoing work to clean up the contaminated site, cautioned groups invited to provide testimony to the panel looking at science and technology needs across the Department of Energy complex.

The panel is conducting an independent assessment after Congress ordered the study in the fiscal 2017 DOE appropriations bill.

The panel visited Hanford last week, collecting verbal and written comments from local, state and tribal representatives with interests in cleaning up the massively contaminated site once used to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Environmental cleanup of DOE sites is the country's third largest liability, said Pam Larsen, executive direct of the Hanford Communities, a coalition of local governments.

Only Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid represent higher liabilities than the $235 billion costs of cleanup yet to be completed, said Alex Smith, nuclear waste program manager for the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator.

Costs of remaining cleanup at Hanford are $150 billion, according to a new DOE estimate.

" It sort of feels in some ways like we are at a tipping point at Hanford where the costs are just starting to eclipse anybody's palatability of paying for that treatment and that cleanup," Smith said.

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A National Academy of Sciences panel heard from Hanford-area interests that new technologies could help empty the underground waste storage tanks in central Hanford more quickly. Department of Energy File

Advances in science and technology may provide options to clean up all DOE sites more swiftly, inexpensively, safely and effectively, Larsen said.

But technology development needs to focus on projects with a reasonable expectation of providing lasting and thorough cleanup, the academy heard repeatedly from speakers.

They have some experience in technology projects that start out with great promise, only to fizzle out — what Ken Niles called the next "new shiny thing."

Niles, the Oregon Department of Energy assistant director for nuclear safety, wrote in a letter to the panel, "We are wary when new technologies may lead to long project delays and diversions of a limited site budget away from direct cleanup."

The study is being conducted as new ways have been proposed to treat some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks and prepare it for permanent disposal.

The $17 billion vitrification plant under construction was not planned to have the capacity to glassify all of Hanford's tank waste in a reasonable time..

Previous attempts to find new ways to deal with tank waste were among technology development efforts notable for dragging on and sucking money away from cleanup work, Niles said.

Construction started on a bulk vitrification pilot plant at Hanford in 2005, but the technology was not picked to treat Hanford waste. Tri-City Herald File

"Examples here include bulk vitrification, which was investigated for nearly a decade at a cost of tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and the consideration of grout for much of Hanford's tank waste, which was seemingly abandoned more than two decades ago, but once again has been revived," he said.

There is a place for innovation in determining what to do with the 40 to 50 percent of the low-activity radioactive tank waste that the vitrification plant may not be able to deal with, Alex said.

But the state believes vitrification is the best for keeping certain radioactive contaminants from leaching out of treated waste forms and contaminating the groundwater, she said.

There is no shortage of other projects that need better technology.

On the state's wish list is better technology to retrieve radioactive waste from Hanford's enclosed, underground tanks, including waste that ranges from sludge to hardened saltcake.

DOE has emptied just 17 of its 149 single-shell tanks of waste after about 19 years of work.

Several of the groups that responded to the National Academy of Science panel said technology to clean up radioactive and chemical contamination in soil deep underground needs to be developed.

"It's very hard to get at," Smith said.

The Hanford vitrification plant under construction was not planned to be large enough to treat all 56 million gallons of radioactive tank waste at the nuclear reservation in a reasonable time. Courtesy Bechtel National

The contamination is at risk of polluting groundwater that moves toward the Columbia River, which cuts through the Hanford nuclear reservation.

An estimated 1 million gallons of waste have leaked or spilled from Hanford's waste storage tanks, and 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquid was dumped into the ground as Hanford worked to meet the nation's World War II and Cold War demand for plutonium.

Attention also needs to be given to earthen caps planned to be placed over some sites where contaminants will remain at Hanford, the panel heard. The engineered caps will be used to keep precipitation from infiltrating and carrying contamination deeper into the soil toward groundwater.

"Most waste site caps have a life expectancy measured in decades," Niles said. "Hanford's wastes will clearly pose a risk far longer than that."

Before 2000, about 4 percent of DOE's cleanup budget was invested in research and development, Smith said.

But that has not been sustained. In 2014, the budget for technology development was only $13 million, or about 0.2 percent of the cleanup budget, Larsen said.

The fiscal 2018 cleanup budget increases that to $35 million, but $15 million is already designated for specific projects, she said.

"We hope your assessment will spur new interest and funding toward finding new technologies to help the cleanup at Hanford and elsewhere in the DOE complex," Niles said in his letter to the National Academy of Sciences panel.

The panel expects to have a report ready in January.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews