Sen. Cantwell discusses proposed Hanford budget
A major changeover in the contracts for the Hanford nuclear reservation is adding to the uncertainty in the Tri-Cities community and with Hanford unions as the Trump administration proposes a budget cut.
That’s what U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., heard during her visit to Hanford and the Tri-Cities on Wednesday as she prepares to dive into Congressional work on the proposed Hanford budget for the next fiscal year.
She toured Hanford in the morning, visiting the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction, learning about new equipment to help protect tank farm workers from chemical vapors.
She also saw some of the final work being done to fill a tunnel storing radioactive waste with concrete-like grout to prevent a possible collapse.
She was pleased with the progress she saw on projects, but adequate funding is needed to continue that, she said.
The Trump administration has proposed a Hanford budget of just over $2.1 billion, a cut of 18 percent from current spending and far less that would be needed to stay on track to meet legal deadlines for cleanup.
The amount needed to comply with legal requirements would be $3.3 billion, according to information given to Cantwell.
In the afternoon she met to hear about community priorities for the budget from representatives of Hanford unions, the state Department of Ecology, the Tri-City Development Council and Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments.
New contracting model
What she heard was not just concerns about the immediate impacts of the budget, but also the DOE plan to award three of the four large contracts for work at the site within a few weeks from late July through August.
A new contracting plan is proposed, focusing on what DOE calls “end states” for two of the three new decade-long contracts, as existing contracts expire, said Alex Smith, manager of the Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program.
The proposed end state contracts are for $10 billion to $15 billion of work at the Hanford tank farms storing 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and for cleanup in central Hanford costing an estimated $7 billion to $12 billion over a decade.
Hanford is contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
Prospective contractors have been asked, not what they can accomplish in a decade, but what they plan for six months to a year, Smith said.
The work for the remainder of the decade would be assigned by change orders to the contract as contractors propose to DOE what work they believe they can complete and tasks to be done are negotiated.
Job concerns for Hanford workers
“I can’t help but think that creates uncertainty for workers, as well as budget uncertainties,” Smith said. It also could mean negotiations with regulators to change legal deadlines for environmental cleanup work.
Hanford Communities asked DOE to do one contract award at a time, rather than awarding three within a few weeks.
The third contract to be awarded is to provide sitewide services — ranging from utilities to emergency services — and valued at $4 billion to $6 billion.
When Hanford contractors change, new management is brought in and the existing workforce is moved between contractors to fill the available jobs.
“It impacts the local economy, because if you don’t know if you have a job you are not spending money, which is understandable,” said Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities. “Kids don’t know if there is money to go to college next year. It is just very, very upsetting to families.”
It also affects local governments that depend on sales tax when spending slows because of uncertainty over jobs, she said.
Hanford Communities likes to see contracts extended, rather than competed “and these are dramatic recompetes,” she said.
The contract structure is set up to allow DOE to negotiate with the winning bidder for 30 days and then change its mind and look for another contractor, Larsen said.
“They are giving themselves lots of flexibility, but they are also creating more uncertainty,” she said.
Bad timing for contract changes
DOE will need to bring on additional staff for continuing negotiations with the selected contractors on individual tasks and end states, said David Reeploeg, vice president of federal affairs for the Tri-City Development Council.
Staff should not be based at DOE’s contracting headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, but at Hanford to work out issues, he said.
State officials are concerned that the contract awards are coming at a “really tough time,” Smith said.
Great progress is being made to start treating radioactive waste at the vitrification plant by a deadline of 2023, Smith said.
But “historically there has been a disruption in work anytime there is a contract change,” she said.
This contract changeover will be particularly disruptive because the labor agreement for the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council expires on Nov. 19, said Jeff McDaniel, HAMTC president. HAMTC is an umbrella group for 15 Hanford unions.
Negotiations typically start about 18 months before the HAMTC labor agreement expires, but who will be in charge under the new contracts is unknown, McDaniel said.
They will just be getting settled in after a transition period between contractors, when the labor agreement is set to expire.
HAMTC has requested from DOE a labor agreement extension of a year, but without success, McDaniel said.
Progress is being made at Hanford, including to move radioactive sludge away from the Columbia River and to tear down the highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant after demolition recently resumed, McDaniel said.
He’s also pleased with work to test less cumbersome equipment to protect workers at the tank farms from breathing in chemical vapors than the 40-pounds of supplied air respirator equipment they now must carry for most tank farm work, he said.
Budget cuts and lost jobs
But progress will inevitably slow as new contracts are put in place, he said.
Union officials also are concerned about the budget cuts and lost jobs.
Each time the budget comes down, the site loses workers with specific training for Hanford, said Randy Walli, business manager for pipefitters Local 598.
For example, workers need six to eight weeks of training to go into the Hanford tank farms, which requires a considerable investment of money, said Steve Maki, training director for the Central Washington Building Trades.
Those employees can easily find jobs elsewhere, likely with employers that pay more, and they will not be returning to Hanford as new jobs that need their training open up, Walli said.
Significant infrastructure still needs to be installed to prepare and move waste to the vitrification plant for treatment, and any disruption in the labor force will make meeting legal deadlines for the start of waste treatment difficult, said union officials.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget does not include enough money for the infrastructure work needed to start treating waste, Reeploeg said.
The proposed budget also is short about $34 million for continued work to move cesium and strontium capsules from underwater storage in an aging concrete pool in Hanford’s Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, Larsen said. The pool could be breached by a severe earthquake, which the U.S. Geological Survey says is possible at Hanford, she said.
There also are high risk disposal areas near the Plutonium Finishing Plant that contain large amounts of plutonium from liquid wastes dumped into the ground. The proposed budget is $16 million short of the money needed to work toward cleanup of the disposal areas, Larsen said.
Cantwell said the local perspective she heard Wednesday will be helpful as Congress starts budget discussions.
She also said she would request a briefing from the top DOE environmental cleanup official on the Hanford contract proposals, noting that many ideas proposed for faster and cheaper Hanford cleanup have not panned out.
“We want to make sure Hanford is cleaned up and that workers are safe,” she said.