‘How can we comment on this?’ Critics say Hanford budget meeting lacks vital details

Safe management of cesium-strontium capsules

This video is about the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility's history, current mission and future plans for the safe and compliant storage of the cesium and strontium capsules.
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This video is about the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility's history, current mission and future plans for the safe and compliant storage of the cesium and strontium capsules.

Participants at a Hanford budget meeting said they did not hear what they wanted — more than cursory information on the budget.

The Department of Energy provided little information on the fiscal 2021 budget at a meeting this week in Richland that marked the start of a public comment period on priorities to include in the budget.

DOE provided no proposed budget figures for the nuclear reservation nor did it detail what work would be required that year to meet legal requirements of the Tri-Party Agreement, or TPA.

“We can’t comment on 2021 intelligently as the public if we don’t have even a presentation of what the TPA compliant budget request would be for 2021,” said Rep. Gerald Pollet, D-Seattle, the executive director of Hanford watchdog group Heart of America Northwest.

Hanford map.jpg
Hanford was used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War. Environmental cleanup is underway now. Courtesy Department of Energy

DOE also did not provide an integrated priority list, as it has failed to do in recent years, several people at the meeting pointed out.

The traditional list typically includes a detailed ranking of DOE’s proposed priorities for work to be be done in the fiscal year for which the budget is being proposed.

The list has included estimated costs, showing what projects were most likely to be funded and which likely would fall too low on the list given a proposed budget amount.

“There’s no here, here,” said Paige Knight, who represents Hanford Watch on the Hanford Advisory Board. “How can we comment on this?”

Comments due June 15

DOE said its priorities, in no particular order, for fiscal 2021 included such ongoing work as treating contaminated groundwater and maintaining waste storage tanks.

It also would focus on preparing to start treating some low-level radioactive waste at the Hanford vitrification plant as soon as 2022, moving capsules of radioactive cesium and strontium to dry storage, retrieving waste from single-shell tanks in the AX Tank Farm and tank closure.

DOE did provide information on the Trump administration’s budget request to Congress for fiscal 2020, saying that would help the public understand what work is expected to be completed before fiscal 2021.

The administration proposed a cut of about $400 million from current spending.

High pressure water is sprayed to move waste around on the bottom of the inner shell of Hanford Tank AY-102. Bubbles may indicate some of the seven leaks found inside the inner shell. No waste is believed to have escaped. (Video is mute)

Hanford is currently operating under the fiscal 2019 budget, with Congress now working on a budget for fiscal 2020 with the administration’s request released two months ago as a basis for discussion.

DOE Hanford officials now are working on a proposal for spending in fiscal 2021 to be sent to DOE Headquarters and then to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

DOE is not expected to discuss the Hanford budget proposal between the time it is sent to Washington, D.C., after the public comment period ends and the release of the administration’s 2021 budget request early next year.

Comments on priorities for the fiscal 2021 budget for the Hanford nuclear reservation site are due June 15.

They may be emailed to BudgetPriorities@rl.gov or mailed to U.S. Department of Energy; Hanford Budget Priorities; P.O. Box 650, H1-20; Richland, WA, 99352.

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.