$2.3B Hanford spending bill pushes for cheaper nuclear waste treatment

The major buildings under construction at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant, formally called the Waste Treatment Plant, are shown at night.
The major buildings under construction at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant, formally called the Waste Treatment Plant, are shown at night. Courtesy Bechtel National

The U.S. House is proposing spending more money next fiscal year at Hanford than requested by the Trump administration, including paying for a tank waste demonstration project.

Supporters of a proposal to encapsulate some waste in concrete-like grout rather than treating it at the site's vitrification plant could save billions of dollars.

The House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to send a spending proposal to the full House that includes $2.3 billion for the Hanford nuclear reservation in fiscal 2019. Money for safeguards and security will be added to that total.

House budget details

It is nearly $247 million more than the administration's request to Congress in February, according to information from the staff of Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

"As this bill moves to the entire House, I will continue advocating for the federal government to fulfill its obligation to the people of Central Washington to complete this cleanup job while ensuring safety for workers," Newhouse said.

Spending would be lower than the current Hanford nuclear reservation budget.

In March, the U.S. House and Senate approved a spending bill for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, 2017, of about $2.4 billion.

The administration's request for fiscal 2019 included increases at some Department of Energy environmental cleanup sites.

But the increases were at the expense of important cleanup activities at Hanford, the Idaho Site and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the House bill report said.

"The committee's recommendation continues to fund a balanced approach that sustains the momentum of ongoing cleanup activities more consistently across all DOE cleanup site," the bill report said.

Capture 3 gallons (2).jpg
The blue drum holds three gallons of Hanford radioactive tank waste as it was being shipped off the nuclear reservation for treatment and disposal. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The House budget would add about $42 million to the amount requested by the Trump administration for the next fiscal year for the Office of River Protection for a total budget of almost $1.5 billion.

The Hanford office is responsible for the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks and the $17 billion vitrification plant being built to glassify the waste. It is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

The House budget for the Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for all other environmental cleanup at Hanford and operating the site, would be $863 million. That's $205 million more than requested by the Trump administration.

The total does not include safeguards and security spending, which was not available on Wednesday.

Grouting test project

The bill report did not break down spending for specific Hanford projects.

But it did say that $15 million of the budget should be used for the next phase of a demonstration project of grouting Hanford tank waste.

The project "is important to lay the foundation for future DOE decisions regarding the potential for treating, stabilizing and disposing of Hanford LAW (low activity waste) in a form other than glass," said a report in September by the Energy Communities Alliance, a nationwide coalition of local governments affected by Department of Energy projects.

If the project is successful, it could speedup the closure of Hanford's waste storage tanks, reducing cleanup costs by billions of dollars and resulting in decades of schedule improvement, the report said.

Last year the project, called the Test Bed Initiative, tried grouting three gallons of Hanford waste and sending it off site for disposal at a a Texas waste disposal facility built to accept low level radioactive waste from federal projects.

The grouting was done just off the Hanford nuclear reservation at Perma-Fix Environmental Solutions in Richland.

The next phase would grout 2,000 gallons of waste. A third phase, which the $15 million would not cover, would grout 100,000 gallons or more of the tank waste.

The Washington State Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator, said after the first three gallons of waste were treated it still expects all Hanford tank waste to be turned into glass at the Hanford vitrification plant.

It also said that if the grouting were further tested the state permit for Perma-Fix likely would need to be changed and that the process would require public input.

Grouting would only be considered for waste in the tanks that is low activity radioactive waste. All high-level radioactive waste would be vitrified.

However, the majority of tank waste is low activity radioactive waste and to vitrify all of it in a reasonable time, the vitrification plant would likely need to be expanded.

DOE's focus now should remain on getting the vitrification plant operating to start treating waste, according to the Department of Ecology. A decision on how the additional waste would be treated does not need to be made for another 15 years, it said.

The treated low activity tank waste had been planned to be disposed of at a Hanford landfill, which requires Department of Ecology approval, before Waste Control Specialists developed the Texas disposal site.

More bill requirements

The House bill report also directs DOE to continue work on the parts of the vitrification plant that will handle high level waste.

DOE has been ordered by a federal court to start vitrifying low activity waste by 2023, with full operation of the plant and treatment of high level waste is not required until 2036. Technical issues related to high level waste have halted engineering and construction on some parts of the plant.

If DOE wants to place two large facilities that will handle high level waste in "preservation mode" for an extended period of time, DOE must first notify Congress, the bill report said.

The bill language also directs DOE to have an independent assessment done of determine the full extent of quality assurance problems in vitrification plant buildings.

A Government Accountability Office report in April said DOE had not shown the plant has the quality needed to operate safely when it begins treating radioactive waste.

Annette Cary; 509-947-9304; @HanfordNews