Energy secretary calls the cost of cleanup at the Hanford, Washington, site “shocking”

Hanford workers begin moving radioactive waste away from Columbia River

Hanford workers began moving some of the highly radioactive sludge out of the K West Reactor Basin, located just 400 yards from the Columbia River, on June 12, 2018. It will be stored in below-ground cells until it can be prepared for disposal.
Up Next
Hanford workers began moving some of the highly radioactive sludge out of the K West Reactor Basin, located just 400 yards from the Columbia River, on June 12, 2018. It will be stored in below-ground cells until it can be prepared for disposal.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry called the latest estimate of remaining Hanford cleanup costs “a pretty shocking number,” at a budget hearing before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a member of the committee, asked Perry how he reconciled the Trump administration’s reduced budget request for Hanford for next year with the estimates of remaining cleanup costs at Hanford.

At the end of January, a new lifecycle cost and schedule report was released by the Department of Energy, putting the estimated remaining cost of Hanford cleanup, plus several years of monitoring, at $323 billion to $677 billion.

The budget request made to Congress last week asked for about $2.1 billion for the Hanford nuclear reservation in the next fiscal year, down from current spending of about $2.5 billion. It’s a proposed decrease of $416 million.

Energy secretary toured Hanford

Perry said he is concerned not only about the projected cleanup cost in the new lifecycle report, but also the time it will take. It projects environmental cleanup at Hanford continuing until about 2079 for the low estimate or 2102 for the high estimate.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry toured the HAMMER training center at the Hanford nuclear reservation in August 2017. File Tri-City Herald

Hanford is contaminated with radioactive and other hazardous chemical waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

Perry said that when he toured Hanford in August 2017 he couldn’t understand why better progress was not being made.

He concluded that the Obama administration did not take the time to really dig into costs and provide good budget projections, he said.

The lifecycle report was a new requirement in 2009, the result of negotiations between the Department of Energy and Washington state over missed cleanup deadlines.

Cost report skipped for 2 years

However, regulators agreed that DOE could skip the 2017 and 2018 report and include more complete information in the 2019 report.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry responds to a question about what message he has for President Trump after visiting Hanford and five of the national laboratories, including PNNL in Richland.

The 2019 report found that estimates had at least tripled from the $107.7 billion in the 2016 report, which projected cleanup would be completed in 2066.

The updated report tied much of the cost increase to treating and disposing of Hanford’s 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks.

The Trump administration is taking a “very aggressive approach” to getting waste out of Hanford and has initiatives that will be safer and have a more reasonable cost, Perry said.

Although he did not give details on any initiatives, DOE is pursuing a demonstration project called the Test Bed Initiative that could commercially treat some Hanford tank waste and send it to a Texas repository for disposal.

A General Accounting Office report in 2017 said one estimate projected a savings of $16.5 billion if a system like the Test Bed Initiative were used rather than expanding the vitrification plant to glassify more tank waste.

Kevin Smith and Perry
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, center, toured the Hanford vitrification plant in August 2017. Kimberly Teske Fetrow Courtesy Bechtel National

Perry also pointed out that progress was being made at Hanford, including current work to move radioactive sludge from underwater storage in the K West Basin near the Columbia River to dry storage in central Hanford.

The sludge may be mixed with concrete-like grout and sent to a new commercial repository with a disposal cell for federal radioactive waste in Texas, he said.

The federal government has a thoughtful plan going forward for Hanford, he said.

But it cannot make up in one budget year for the failure to correctly estimate costs for many years, he said.

“We give you our commitment that not only are we going to be working efficiently, but we’re going to be working timely,” he told Newhouse.

Watch the exchange between Newhouse and Perry at bit.ly/DOE2020hearing at about 49 minutes into the hearing.

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.