Hanford cleanup costs triple. And that’s the ‘best case scenario’ in a new report

The expected cost to finish cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation has tripled in three years, and that’s under the best case scenario, according to a Department of Energy report released Friday.

The report put remaining cleanup costs at $323.2 billion at best. At worst it could be $677 billion.

The cost estimates were included in the first Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report to be released in three years. In the last report in 2016 the estimate was $107.7 billion.

“The findings of this report, and the developments on which it is based, show that a new approach is needed for the mission at Hanford,” DOE said in a statement.

“These increases have been years in the making and, while not unexpected, the implications are clear,” DOE said.

Estimates also have been extended on how long cleanup will need to continue at the 580-square-mile site in Eastern Washington state.

failed pump A!-106.jpg
Hanford workers removed a failed pump from one of the underground waste tanks at Hanford holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The assumptions included in the $323 billion estimate would require peak annual spending of nearly $9 billion a year, with cleanup continuing until 2079.

The high estimate would drag out cleanup to about 2102 and spending would peak at $16 billion a year. It includes a wide range of uncertainties associated with Hanford cleanup that could impact the cost and schedule.

Uncertainties include having to replace key facilities of the vitrification plant if treatment takes significantly longer than anticipated, that parts of the plant are not operating in the 2030s as required, that the aging 242-A Evaporator plant will have to be replaced, and that more double shell tanks relied on to store waste until it can be treated will fail.

The 2016 report estimated that cleanup would wrap up in 2066 and peak annual spending would be about $3.5 billion.

This year the nation is spending about $2.5 billion on managing and cleaning up the Hanford site.

It is massively contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Tank waste drives up cost

Much of the increased cost in the latest lifecycle report is related to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks. The tanks must be emptied, the tanks closed in place or removed, and then the waste treated for permanent disposal.

A $17 billion vitrification plant is being built to treat the waste, but technical and other issues have made the project fall years behind schedule since construction began in 2002.

DOE’s faces revised deadlines set by the federal court in 2016 to have the plant treating low activity radioactive tank waste by 2023 and have the plant fully operating, including treating high level waste by 2036.

vit effluent management facility
Employees at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, lower a rebar curtain into the Effluent Management Facility. The facility will be needed to start treating low-activity radioactive waste by 2023. Courtesy Bechtel National

In most years since 2011, DOE has produced an annual lifecycle cost and schedule report, as required by the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement

But the Hanford regulators and other two parties to the agreement, the Washington state Department of Ecology and Environmental Protection Agency, have agreed to let DOE to skip the report for two years.

The new lifecycle report relies on estimates prepared with computer modeling of different scenarios and assumptions for the tank waste.

Different assumptions are modeled, such as how efficiently the vit plant will operate, and different scenarios are considered, such as the ratios of waste to glass in the glassified waste logs the plant will produce for disposal.

The increase in costs for the tank waste treatment and disposition increases from an estimate of $53.5 billion in 2016 to a range of $221.4 billion to $518.1 billion in the report released Friday.

Other expenses also increase.

For example, the cost of sitewide services, such as utilities, information technology and security, increases from $9 billion in the previous report to a range of $20.4 billion to $32.8 billion in the most recent report as Hanford cleanup is expected to take longer.

Capture historic tanks.PNG
Hanford’s underground tanks for radioactive waste, shown under construction, have held radioactive waste since as early as World War II. Plans call for treating much of the waste for disposal at the vitrification plant.

The cost of groundwater and contaminated soil cleanup increases from around $6 billion in 2016 to about $10 billion in the latest report.

DOE will use information in the new report “as it continues to work in a collaborative manner with the state of Washington, members of Congress, and local stakeholders to get waste out of Hanford’s tanks and disposed of sooner and safer,” DOE said.

Ecology officials not surprised

The report released Friday followed both a Government Accountability Office report released this week on increasing costs across the DOE cleanup complex and a DOE financial report that showed rising costs to complete cleanup. The GAO report described an $82 billion single-year cost increase.

The Department of Ecology had just received the lifecycle report Thursday, the legal deadline for DOE to finish its 2019 report, and expects to study the 240-page document this month.

However, the numbers were not that big of a surprise, said Alex Smith, the department’s nuclear waste program manager.

Its work as DOE prepared the tank waste analysis — called System Plan 8 because it is the eighth revision of the document— plus other reports have given it insight into rising Hanford cleanup costs and a lengthening schedule.

Ecology has known for some time that the site will need a big increase in federal money to deal with its high level radioactive tank waste, Smith said.

Workers clean a component used to treat groundwater at the 200 West Pump and Treat Facility at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Courtesy Department of Energy

It has been saying for several years that budgets of $4 billion a year would be needed for five years to finish building the vitrification plant.

Hanford has a good track record of using extra funds well, Smith said, including $2 billion in economic recovery money under Obama.

The cost to develop nuclear weapons at Hanford and other sites across the U.S. was about $9 trillion in today’s dollars, said John Price, Ecology’s Tri-Party Agreement section manager.

“So the cost to clean it up is a fraction (of that),” Smith said.

Tri-City leaders concerned

The lifecycle report is intended to support planning for the next budget year. However, in most recent years under Democrat and Republican administrations less money is proposed than identified as needed.

Although a strong Washington state Congressional delegation has then increased the administration’s proposal, it’s typically still less than is needed to meet legal cleanup deadlines.

Tri-City area leaders are concerned about the increasing costs.

If Hanford is not cleaned up, its soil and groundwater will be further contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste, including from leak-prone underground waste storage tanks. Contaminated groundwater moves toward the Columbia River.

Aging contaminated buildings and radioactive waste storage pools will further deteriorate, increasing the risk of radioactive releases into the air and ground.

TRIDEC said earlier this week that the increasing estimates are concerning, including because of the need to convince Congress to fund all the cleanup that is required.

“We’re not sure what appetite the administration and Congress will have to fund Hanford at the necessary levels for decades to come,” said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president for federal programs.

Both TRIDEC and Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area city and other governments, have supported looking at ways to reduce costs without compromising cleanup.

The public can comment on the report until April 15. Send comments to Lcssc@rl.gov.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.