State accused of stalling on permit that could speed Hanford radioactive waste treatment

PermaFix Northwest facility in Richland

The PermaFix Northwest facility at 2025 Battelle Blvd. in Richland treats radioactive wastes.
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The PermaFix Northwest facility at 2025 Battelle Blvd. in Richland treats radioactive wastes.

The Washington state Department of Ecology was accused at a public meeting of dragging its feet and preventing a test in Richland of a new way to treat Hanford radioactive waste.

If the treatment test cannot be done under a state permit held by the Perma-Fix Northwest plant just off the Hanford nuclear reservation in Richland, then 2,000 gallons of radioactive waste will be trucked to Tennessee for treatment.

It makes no sense to ship the waste across the country when the commercial capability exists locally, said several people who spoke at a public meeting this week in Richland.

The Department of Ecology held the meeting to discuss what should be included in an environmental impact statement for the Perma-Fix plant.

The study is required before state officials will renew Perma-Fix’s 20-year-old Dangerous Waste Regulation Permit.

The Department of Energy is preparing to start turning some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form at the Hanford vitrification plant.

People attending the meeting also questioned why the permit has been stuck in the renewal process for 10 years.

“We believe there are NO safety reasons, nor regulatory requirements that should stop the Department of Ecology from granting of this permit,” said Tri-Citian Bob Ferguson in a letter he read aloud for himself and Gary Petersen, both Richland business and civic leaders with long careers related to nuclear matters.

And Richland Mayor Robert Thompson accused the Department of Ecology staff of having a personal bias against Perma-Fix and a DOE project it is involved in called the Test Bed Initiative.

Thompson is the chairman of the Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area city and other governments.

Permit renewal 10 years overdue

The state permit is required to be renewed every 10 years, and Perma-Fix Northwest applied for a renewal in 2009.

But the Department of Ecology found that the initial application and two subsequent renewal applications lacked adequate information to meet state regulations and guidelines.

PermaFix sign
The PermaFix Northwest facility at 2025 Battelle Blvd. in Richland treats radioactive wastes. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

From 2015 to 2018 Ecology staff met frequently with Perma-Fix staff, sometimes weekly, to discuss what needed to be included in a complete application, leading to the latest revised permit renewal application submitted last month.

“We’re eager to take Perma-Fix’s permit out for public comment and ultimate approval once we have an application that fully complies with state environmental regulations,” said John Price of the Department of Ecology after the meeting.

“We currently are reviewing the company’s fourth attempt to submit a complete and accurate application, and have been working closely with the company to ensure that the permit is ready to proceed,” he said.

The environmental study that the state is conducting before it sets conditions for a final revised permit could include the Test Bed Initiative, but Ecology officials and Perma-Fix disagree on what should be evaluated.

The Department of Energy is building a $17 billion vitrification plant at Hanford to turn much of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal.

But the plant was never intended to be large enough to treat all the tank waste in a reasonable time. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Perma-Fix wants to treat tank waste

DOE is testing whether some of the waste that could be classified as low level radioactive could be turned into a concrete- or grout-like form and sent to a commercial repository in Texas. All high level radioactive waste would still be glassified.

The next testing phase to ship 2,000 gallons of low-level waste to a Perma-Fix facility before being sent to Texas must be done with a renewed permit, say state officials. They want to evaluate that second phase in the environmental study.

Perma-Fix wants the environmental study to look at treating 3 million gallons of low-level waste mixed with hazardous chemicals annually, including waste from Hanford and from other DOE sites.

It wants that covered in the new permit conditions, which would cover the next decade.

But Ecology officials maintain that treating larger volumes of tank waste at Perma-Fix is such a significant change that Perma-Fix must first get its existing permit renewal approved and then submit a separate application.

Perma-Fix from Ecology.PNG
A Perma-Fix employee in protective gear works with waste. Courtesy Perma-Fix Northwest and Department of Ecology

Just the environmental study is not expected to be finished until spring 2020. But DOE wants the 2,000 gallons of waste in Phase 2 of the Test Bed Initiative treated this year.

Phase 3 could follow with treatment of 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of tank waste and then shipment to the Texas underground waste disposal cell for government low-level radioactive waste.

Disagreement over what permit covers

Perma-Fix contends that its current permit, if renewed, already would cover the 2,000-gallon test.

“It’s a shame we have to go all the way to Tennessee when technically we have the permit to do it in Richland,” said Richard Grondin, general manager of Perma-Fix in Richland, at the Wednesday meeting.

But it will abide with the Department of Ecology’s decision not treat the waste in Richland if the state does not agree.

He said that the state should evaluate permitting treatment of as much as 3 million gallons of waste given how long it takes to get a permit change approved, rather than taking a “piece-meal” approach over the next decade.

He offered to give anyone at the meeting a tour of Perma-Fix. “You will see our facility is safe. It is sound. We have a strong radiation protection program,” he said.

The mayor, who was out of town but submitted a letter to be read at the meeting, said it made no sense to be shipping liquid tank waste to Tennessee for treatment when it could be treated and turned into a sold form locally for shipment to Texas.

Calls for quick permit approval

Thompson said DOE site managers and contractor presidents are concerned with the delays.

“It is frustrating to me that a company, located in our city, is being hampered in their ability to do business by the state of Washington,” he said.

And the Tri-City Development Council is worried about the escalating cost estimates for Hanford environmental cleanup, said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president of federal programs.

The nation is spending about $2.4 billion a year on Hanford cleanup, but the most recent DOE estimate put the remaining cost of Hanford cleanup at $323 billion to $677 billion, which would require decades of funding at double to more than quadruple current levels, he said.

New methods of getting work done, like the Test Bed Initiative, need to be approached with an open and positive attitude to get Hanford cleanup done more quickly and at less cost, he said.

“In delaying this permit, Ecology is directly adding major cost increases to Hanford cleanup, to the federal government and to taxpayers,” said the letter from Ferguson and Petersen.

“Because of this, Ecology should itself be held accountable for these additional costs, whether by congressional action or by lawsuit,” they said.

The unusually heavy snowfall in February increases the need to get waste out of tanks, process it and send it out of state, they said. The snow melt with extended freezing conditions could damage aging tanks, they said.

The Department of Ecology will accept written comments on what to consider in its environmental study through March 25 at bit.ly/PFNWcomments.

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.