Can Trump administration’s Hanford proposal meet legal deadlines? No, says Sen. Cantwell

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., came armed with numbers to a budget hearing Tuesday to show just how far short of legal requirements the proposed Hanford budget for next year would fall.

Hanford would require nearly $3.3 billion to meet legal obligations in fiscal 2020, but the Trump administration is proposing $2.1 billion, according to numbers she provided to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

He appeared before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the administration’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget for the Department of Energy.

DOE agrees with Hanford regulators to legally binding deadlines for cleanup projects under the Tri-Party Agreement and also has deadlines set by the federal court.

Failure to meet past deadlines has meant fines for the federal government and increased court oversight.

Cantwell calls out deep cuts

Cantwell’s staff said that Hanford officials had come up with a figure of almost $1.9 billion for the Hanford Office of River Protection next year to be able to meet legal obligations, and the administration’s budget request was $1.4 billion.

The Office of River Protection is responsible for 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste for disposal.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, in the blue hardhat, tours the Hanford vitrification plant in 2009. File Tri-City Herald

The Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for all other Hanford cleanup and managing the 580-square-mile site, would need $1.4 billion to remain on track to meet legal obligations, according to figures from Hanford officials.

The administration proposed about half of that, $718 million.

“So the people on the ground who are working for you are putting numbers on the table, and then the administration, or someone, is making a decision that is different from that,” Cantwell told Perry. “And these are the people who have to meet the milestones of compliance.”

Congress sets the budget, with the administration’s request a starting point, and in recent years Congress has decided the request for Hanford cleanup was too small.

“I know the outcome. And I know in the end we will prevail,” Cantwell said. “But what I don’t like about this is this —we’ve got to get on the same page, because I guarantee you, Hanford is never going to be done on the cheap.”

Wyden wants answers

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also brought up Hanford at the hearing, saying “two bad things are going on.”

DOE is proposing to change its interpretation of the definition of what Wyden called Hanford’s worst waste, high-level radioactive waste.

wyden at tank farm
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is shown on one of several visits to Hanford . Courtesy Sen. Ron Wyden staff

Wyden has warned that the proposed definition change could lead to dramatically different cleanup practices and outcomes.

On top of that the administration is proposing budget cuts, Wyden said. The overall proposed administration budget of $2.1 billion for the nuclear reservation is a drop from current spending of about $2.5 billion.

He asked that he and Cantwell be given an explanation within 10 days of how proposed budget cuts combined with proposed reclassification of waste would allow DOE to meet it legal cleanup deadlines.

The secretary said he would do that.