New Hanford cleanup deadlines proposed. Critics call the delay risky

Hot cells at Hanford's Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility will be used to prepare capsules of radioactive strontium and cesium for dry storage.
Hot cells at Hanford's Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility will be used to prepare capsules of radioactive strontium and cesium for dry storage. Department of Energy

The Department of Energy would have until 2025 to remove radioactive material from underwater storage in a Hanford basin at risk in a severe earthquake, under proposed new legal deadlines.

The state of Oregon told the Department of Energy and its regulators months ago when the agencies began discussing the date that it was "greatly concerned." The proposal was released for public comment this week.

The work could and should be done sooner to prevent a possible failure of capsules holding radioactive cesium and strontium, according to Oregon officials. The capsules hold about a third of the radioactivity of all of the waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The proposed deadline is one of several changes proposed in the Tri-Party Agreement by its three parties — the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The new deadlines would cover both the cesium and strontium capsules and also sodium contaminated with radioactive material, most of it from the liquid sodium-cooled Fast Flux Test Facility reactor at Hanford.

In 2014 the DOE Office of Inspector General warned that the 1,936 capsules — each about 22 inches long — should be moved to dry storage as soon as possible because of the risk that the walls of the pool where they are stored could be damaged in a bad earthquake.

DOE already had been considering moving the capsules to dry storage for more than a decade.

CH2M HILL workers, inside the Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, rearrange highly radioactive capsules to distribute heat generated by the radioactive material in the capsules. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Office of the Inspector General and others, including Oregon officials, have raised concerns that radiation from the capsules may have weakened the concrete walls of the pool over four decades.

Thirteen feet of water in the pool at the Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility in central Hanford provides cooling for the capsules and shields workers from radiation.

If cooling is lost and the capsules break, radiation could make the building too hazardous for workers to enter, according to a 2000 report by former contractor Fluor Hanford that looked at a possible worst-case scenario.

The waste was removed from Hanford's underground waste storage tanks from 1974 to 1985 to reduce the heat generated in the tanks, which hold high level radioactive waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

This video is about the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility's history, current mission and future plans for the safe and compliant storage of the cesium and strontium capsules.

DOE is planning to package the capsules in a system that includes stainless steel containers and then put them into a steel-lined concrete cask for storage on an outdoor pad in central Hanford.

"Needless to say, we were quite disappointed to see a proposed interim milestone in which the transfer of the cesium and strontium capsules to a new interim safe storage facility would not be completed until Aug. 31, 2025," said Ken Niles, assistant director for nuclear safety for the Oregon Department of Energy in a letter to the Tri-Party agencies during talks on the proposed deadline.

"That is more than seven and a half years from now and more than 12 years since we raised our concerns to DOE and its regulators," Niles said.

The project is relatively straightforward and DOE has extensive experience handling the capsules, Niles said. At one time they were loaned out for industrial or research use.

DOE asked for the 2025 deadline based on how much funding it expected to be available in the 2020-25 time frame, according to the Department of Ecology.

Sodium used at the Fast Flux Test Facility at Hanford will be converted and used at the Hanford vitrification's Pretreatment Facility. Tri-City Herald File

The proposed changes to the Tri-Party Agreement also address the final disposition of the cesium and strontium capsules, creating a new milestone.

The proposal would set a deadline of the end of 2047 to have facilities in place to prepare for final disposition of the cesium and strontium capsules.

No decision has been made on what will happen to the capsules beyond dry storage, but one option is to open the capsules and treat the cesium and strontium at the Hanford vitrification plant to prepare them for permanent disposal.

Or the capsules could be sent directly to a national repository for disposal, once the nation has one for high level radioactive waste.

Both options would likely require a new facility, whether to empty the capsules or to prepare them for shipment.

The 2047 deadline was picked to make sure a plan was in place while the vitrification plant is still operational in case that option is selected.

The 2047 deadline also would apply to facilities needed to process bulk sodium, with an interim deadline of the end of 2026 for a conceptual design for a sodium reaction facility to be submitted by DOE to the Department of Ecology.

A decision already has been made to convert Hanford's stored sodium into aqueous sodium hydroxide that will be needed when the vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility begins operating in 2033.

The chemical will be used at the Pretreatment Facility to neutralize acids and dissolve certain metals.

DOE has determined that it will be safer to store the bulk sodium until it is needed than to convert it earlier to a much larger volume of aqueous sodium hydroxide.

The sodium comes not only from the Fast Flux Test Facility, which has been shut down, but also from shipments to Hanford in the 1960s and 1970s from other projects.

The public may submit comments on the proposed Tri-Party Agreement deadlines until July 6. Comments may be sent to TPA@RL.gov or to Rich Buel DOE-RL; P.O. Box 550, H5-20; Richland WA 99352.

No public hearing is scheduled, but if there is enough public interest the Tri-Party Agreement agencies will consider scheduling one.

To learn more, go to Hanford.gov and look on the event calendar under any day through the comment period.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews