Is a cheaper Hanford cleanup possible? She says keep an open mind to these ideas

The Department of Energy has some ideas on how Hanford could be cleaned up more efficiently, but new approaches will require open minds, insisted a top DOE official during a visit to the site last week.

Anne White, the assistant secretary for the DOE Office of Environmental Management, was wrapping up her fifth visit to the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Her trip came as congressional leaders are grappling with new estimates of Hanford cleanup costs that Energy Secretary Rick Perry called “shocking” at hearings over the past two weeks.

The new estimates boost the remaining cost of cleanup from about $108 billion, as estimated in 2016, to a new range of $323 billion to $677 billion.

Community leaders near Hanford were already concerned about continuing to persuade Congress to keep paying for Hanford cleanup for decades to come, preventing the spread of radioactive contamination into the Columbia River and protecting the public.

Anne White, Department of Energy assistant secretary for environmental management, takes a hands-on approach at the 324 Building mock-up during her tour of Hanford. Workers at the mock-up are testing equipment that will remotely remove highly radioactive soil from a spill beneath the actual 324 Building. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Hanford Site is massively contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste because of the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

White’s trip to Hanford included a roundtable discussion with Tri-City leaders, a meeting with union officials and a tour of the Wanapum Heritage Center in Mattawa to learn about the Native Americans who were ordered off the land in World War II to make way for the nuclear reservation.

But much of the visit was boots on the ground as she toured Hanford projects, talking to workers and seeing progress.

It was a return to her roots in the nuclear field. She has hands-on experience at many DOE cleanup sites and owned a consulting firm to provide solutions to complex environmental challenges before her appointment to DOE leadership.

New cleanup contracts to focus work

Friday was her one-year anniversary as a top DOE official, leading environmental cleanup projects at DOE sites across the nation.

She’s emphasized the need to reduce the environmental liability of former weapons production sites like Hanford by putting sites on a clear path to cleanup completion.

She’s pursuing ideas that range from new contracting methods to seeing if there are more economical ways to treat radioactive waste for disposal.

DOE is planning to award “end-state” contracts as two major, decade-long cleanup contracts at Hanford expire in September after yearlong extensions. At Hanford, DOE oversees work that it pays contractors to perform.

A new 10-year contract for operating and maintaining Hanford tank farms that store 56 million gallons of radioactive waste is valued at up to $13 billion. A contract for central Hanford environmental cleanup other than the tank farms is valued at up to $10 billion over a decade.

With sites like Hanford where the end of cleanup is many decades in the future, “it can become easy for scope to get a little sloppy,” White said.

Anne White, Department of Energy assistant secretary for environmental management, receives an update at the Hanford tank farms on work to deliver low activity waste to the vitrification plant for treatment. Courtesy Department of Energy

She wants to move toward contracts that give a sense of a start, middle and end to cleanup projects.

“There is a lot to be said for contracting models and the way they can drive performance and behavior,” she said.

Winning contractors would be required to come up with discrete scopes of work that could be completed, or reach end states, as individual tasks.

She favors a contracting structure for completing projects that would give contractors a share of every dollar they save.

“Not only does work get done, but corners are not cut,” White said.

Contractors know that if they don’t do the work safely, projects get shut down and costs mount, she said. Contractors would lose their share of cost savings.

Overhead costs cut into Hanford cleanup

She also sees significant opportunity to cut overhead at Hanford.

She wants more of the Hanford budget spent on cleanup and less on other work, such as record storage and project controls, she said.

The Tri-City Development Council has estimated that keeping Hanford in “minimum safe” condition costs about $1 billion a year, with the rest of the Hanford budget then available for actual cleanup progress.

Anne White, Department of Energy assistant secretary for environmental management, tours the Hanford vitrification plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

Hanford budgets in recent years have ranged from about $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion, with the Trump administration proposing to Congress a budget of $2.1 billion for the next fiscal year.

Minimum safe includes work that keeps aging facilities safe — preventing incidents like the partial collapse of an old radioactive waste storage tunnel in 2017 — and also providing all the services the nuclear reservation needs, from keeping the lights on to repairing roads.

Some of the biggest changes she’d like to see at Hanford are related to tank waste and how it is classified and treated.

“We’ve been on a path for a long time to building facilities designed and conceived 20 years ago,” White said.

Audit raises waste treatment concerns

But over the last two decades technologies have improved and new waste disposal options have become available, she said.

Since 2002 construction has been underway on a $17 billion vitrification plant at Hanford to treat much, but not all, of the tank waste.

The current plan calls for treating the portion of the tank waste that can be separated out as low-level waste starting by 2023.

But construction on the plant’s two facilities that would handle high-level radioactive waste — the Pretreatment Facility and the High Level Waste Facility — have been on hold since 2012 after technical issues were identified.

In July, an audit done for DOE by the Army Corps of Engineers showed those two facilities had little chance of having construction completed by the federal consent decree deadlines of 2030 for one building and 2031 for the other.

At current funding levels of $690 million a year, the parts of the Hanford vitrification plant planned to handle high-level radioactive waste have less than a 10 percent chance of having construction completed by the deadline, the audit found.

Construction has been on hold at the massive Pretreatment Facility at the Hanford vitrification plant since 2012. It stands about 11 stories high. Courtesy Bechtel National

The funding level would need to be increased to $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year starting in fiscal 2023 to meet the deadline, the audit said.

However, if construction progressed only on the High Level Waste Facility, at current funding levels there is a 50 percent chance construction could be completed by its deadline of 2030. If funding is increased to $800 million a year starting in 2020, the deadline likely would be met, the audit found.

The audit results have DOE looking at alternatives, including the possibility of finding a different way to separate out, or pretreat, high-level waste for treatment at the vitrification plant.

It would bypass the Pretreatment Facility, just as DOE already plans for the start of low-level waste treatment at the vitrification plant. The Pretreatment Facility was planned to separate waste into low-level and high-level waste for separate treatment.

DOE has analyzed possible alternatives to high-level waste processing and is having them independently reviewed, White said.

Other waste cleanup options

In another initiative, DOE has a pilot project underway to try treating some low-level radioactive tank waste without sending it to the vitrification plant at all. It is seen as an alternative to expanding the plant, which was not planned to be large enough to treat all 56 million gallons of tank waste in a reasonable time.

The Test Bed Initiative is testing whether low-level waste could be treated and turned into a solid, concrete-like form at a commercial facility and then shipped for disposal to a new commercial disposal facility in Texas for low-level waste.

The Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator, has long said it prefers low-level tank waste to be vitrified, or glassified, if it is disposed of by burial at Hanford. It does not believe grouting the waste into a concrete-like form would adequately prevent further pollution of groundwater beneath Hanford.

Capture historic tanks.PNG
The radioactive waste tanks in Hanford C Tank Farm were constructed during World War II. Hanford’s underground tanks store 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste until it can be treated for disposal. Courtesy Department of Energy

In a more controversial proposal, DOE is considering a change to how it interprets the definition of high-level radioactive waste. The change would allow more waste to be classified as low-level waste rather than high-level waste.

Critics have seen it as a way to leave more difficult-to-retrieve waste in the bottom of Hanford storage tanks or to not address tank waste that has leaked and spilled into the ground at Hanford.

But some Hanford-area officials see it as a common-sense way to evaluate waste by its radioactive toxicity and provide options to advance cleanup by treating some waste sooner and at a much reduced cost.

DOE has held a public comment period on its proposal and is taking the comments seriously, White said.

If DOE proceeds with the proposed change of waste classification standards, there will be public discussions on how DOE should make determinations of what waste should be reclassified and a chance for the public to share its concerns, she said.

She is committed to DOE discussions with communities like the Tri-Cities before any big changes are made, she said.

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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.