Hanford wants more time to empty leak-prone radioactive waste tank. Here’s the new deadline

The Department of Energy has been given an extension of federal court consent decree deadlines to empty radioactive waste from nine leak-prone underground tanks.
The Department of Energy has been given an extension of federal court consent decree deadlines to empty radioactive waste from nine leak-prone underground tanks. Associated Press file

The Department of Energy will have more time to empty some of Hanford’s leak-prone underground waste storage tanks under an order issued in federal court.

Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson agreed to a request by the state of Washington and DOE to give DOE until the end of 2026 to empty radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from nine more single-shell tanks.

It is an extension from March 31, 2024.

A second deadline to keep work on pace to meet that milestone also has been extended.

DOE has another six months — until June 2021 — to have the first two tanks of the nine emptied.

New court-enforced consent decree deadlines for retrieving the waste from tanks and treating it at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction were set by Malouf Peterson in 2016.

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Hanford workers have been required since 2016 to wear supplied air respirators for most work in the nuclear reservation’s tank farms to protect them from breathing in chemical vapors. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The parties to the lawsuit filed by the state of Washington requested the extension as part of a recent settlement agreement reached in a separate lawsuit filed by the state and other parties seeking protection of workers from chemical vapors associated with the waste held in the tanks.

The decision by Malouf Peterson clears the way for another U.S. judge, Thomas Rice, to consider approving the chemical vapors settlement agreement, which depended on an extension of the deadlines to empty tanks.

Work to empty waste from 177 single shell tanks — most with a capacity of 1 million gallons — into 27 newer, double shell tanks has slowed because of precautions to protect workers from chemical vapors. To date, 17 single shell tanks have been emptied of as much waste as DOE says is possible with current technology.

In July 2016 the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council ordered a stop to work unless workers were wearing supplied air respirators for all work within tank farm boundaries.

HAMTC, an umbrella organization of 15 unions, has since allowed some limited work to be done with less cumbersome respirators.

But the majority of work continues to be done by workers who must carry air tanks on their backs and other equipment that can weigh up to 40 pounds. The time workers can spend in the tank farms before leaving to switch out the tanks is limited.

The supplied air respirators have sharply reduced reports of 60 or more possible vapor exposures in some recent years, but also have reduced efficiency by about 50 percent, by DOE estimates.

DOE also is analyzing “retrieval challenges and tank condition issues” associated with two of the nine tanks covered by the new consent decree deadline, it said in a court document. Although it did not explain what the challenges were, two of the nine tanks are believed to have leaked radioactive waste in the past.

More consent decree deadline extensions could be requested, according to a document filed with the court earlier this month.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews