Skinnier Hanford budget proposal criticized for not making ‘meaningful progress’ on cleanup

The Hanford budget proposed for 2020 would do little to advance environmental cleanup of many of the aging facilities at the nuclear reservation, according to documents released over the weekend.

New documents explain how the Trump administration would allocate proposed funding at Hanford under reduced spending, with some spending cuts justified by progress made on some cleanup projects.

The administration last week proposed a budget cut of $416 million for the 580-square-mile site, which is contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The budget would drop from about $2.5 billion this fiscal year to $2.1 billion next year under the funding request submitted by the administration to Congress.

“These budget request numbers would fall short of fulfilling the federal government’s obligation to clean up the Hanford Site,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, D-Wash., in a statement.

The proposed budget cuts come after the release of a Hanford “lifecycle” cost report in January that put the remaining cost of environmental cleanup at Hanford at an estimated $323 billion to $677 billion.

The melter bays at the vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility will be used to heat radioactive and chemical wastes and glass-forming materials to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit to create solid glass forms for long-term storage.

The proposed 2020 spending plan for DOE weapons complex cleanup nationwide would make dealing with highly radioactive waste a priority, including the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in Hanford’s underground tanks, according to budget documents.

However, the proposed cuts are to both the Hanford Office of River Protection, which is responsible for the tank waste, and to the Hanford Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for all other Hanford cleanup, plus operating the site.

The Office of River Protection budget would drop from about $1.6 billion to about $1.4 billion.

The Richland Operations Office budget would be about half of that. The administration proposes trimming spending from $954 million to about $718 million for the Richland Operations Office, according to budget documents.

The cost of just operating the site and maintaining it in a safe condition — sometimes referred to as “minimum safe” operations — is usually estimated to cost about $600 million.

Limited Hanford cleanup progress possible

“What the community wants is for meaningful progress to be made at Hanford, and we’re concerned that the budget request doesn’t get us there,” said David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs at the Tri-City Development Council.

“The Richland Operations Office would not be able to do much more than maintain ‘minimum safe’ operations, and not enough would get done at the Waste Treatment Plant and tank farms,” he said.

The $17 billion Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, is being built to turn much of Hanford’s tank waste into a stable glass form for disposal.

The request also doesn’t allow much risk mitigation work nor does it address the increasing maintenance and operations costs of keeping the aging, 76-year-old site running, Reeploeg said.

The Richland Operations Office has focused until recently on getting the land along the Columbia River cleaned up, with the expectation that the budget would shift to central Hanford cleanup as most of that work has been completed.

Among central Hanford facilities is the Hanford radioactive waste storage tunnel that partially collapsed in May 2017, as Richland Operations Office resources were focused on the area along the Columbia River and some other high profile work, including demolition of the highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant.

The administration said the proposed budget cut is possible because of the anticipated completion of current projects, such as transferring highly radioactive sludge from underwater storage at the K West Basin near the Columbia and demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

Work also should be completed to stabilize radioactive waste storage tunnels by filling them with concrete-like grout.

Together those three projects had about $100 million budgeted in the current year.

Partial funding cuts

Projects that will see partial funding cuts include soil and groundwater cleanup and site-wide services, including developing infrastructure to continue cleanup activities.

The Payment in Lieu of Taxes made to local governments, including Richland schools, could drop by $5 million to allow money to be spent on cleanup work. Money is typically transferred from DOE to local governments that would be collecting taxes on land if it were not controlled by the federal government.

Key projects that would continue include moving radioactive cesium and strontium capsules from underwater storage in an aging basin and cleanup of the highly radioactive spill beneath the 324 Building just north of Richland near the Columbia River.

The latest Hanford fact sheet says that the site still has 826 buildings or other facilities — including its huge, highly contaminated fuel processing plants — and 690 waste sites, most in central Hanford.

Radioactive waste treatment focus

Spending for the vitrification plant, which is under the Office of River Protection, would be cut back from $833 million in fiscal 2018 and $786 million this year to $690 million in fiscal 2020.

The focus would be on work to start treating some low activity radioactive tank waste by a legal deadline of 2023.

About $50 million would go to other facilities planned to treat high level tank waste by 2033. The money would be spent to maintain the partially built structures, work on resolving technical issues and some engineering, but no construction.

The proposed budget also includes money to advance the Test Bed Initiative to production scale.

About $10 million would be spent to treat and solidify 300,000 to 500,000 gallons of low activity tank waste at a commercial facility off Hanford and then send it to a new repository for DOE waste in Texas.

The test project is seen as a less expensive alternative to expanding the vitrification plant to turn all of the low activity Hanford tank waste into a stable glass form for disposal at Hanford. The plant was not planned to be large enough to treat all Hanford tank waste.

Spending on the tank farms would decrease from current spending of $828 million to $677 million, under the administration’s budget request

Piping is installed between the major nuclear facilities at the Waste Treatment Plant, also known as the Hanford Vit Plant

A project to build a stand-alone facility in the tank farms to separate low activity waste out of the tanks for treatment at the vitrification plant starting in 2023 has been put on hold, according to budget documents.

The focus in 2020 instead will be on a proposed system to prepare low activity waste for treatment with systems at the tanks, rather than at a central facility.

Congress sets the final decision on the annual Hanford spending and the Washington congressional delegation was able to increase the administration’s budget request for the current year by about $342 million.

“Thankfully the request is just a starting point, and we continue to receive incredible support” from Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash.; Newhouse and others,” Reeploeg said.

TRIDEC will support efforts to secure money for the coming year and also will work with DOE and others to identify ways to reduce long-term cleanup costs at Hanford, he said.

“As we have seen in budgets offered by President Obama and in previous budgets of the current administration, the presidential budget is a statement of priorities,” Newhouse said.

He will make his concerns clear to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and will work in the House and also with Murray and Cantwell on obtaining adequate funding, he said.

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.