Shakeup at DOE: What we’ve learned about what it means for Hanford

Assistant Secretary for the Office of Environmental Management talks to the Herald about Hanford

Assistant Secretary for the Office of Environmental Management, Anne White, talks to the Herald about Hanford cleanup and budgets.
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Assistant Secretary for the Office of Environmental Management, Anne White, talks to the Herald about Hanford cleanup and budgets.

The Department of Energy head of environmental cleanup for Hanford and other sites across the nation submitted her resignation Friday morning.

Rumors had swirled for a week that Anne White, the assistant secretary for environmental management, was leaving, but DOE had declined to talk about it.

A memo sent by Energy Secretary Rick Perry was issued Friday morning to DOE employees saying she had submitted her resignation Friday to be effective June 14.

She reportedly was under pressure from more senior DOE leadership to resign.

White has served in the position for about 14 months after her nomination had been confirmed by the Senate. She had more than 25 years of experience in the nuclear field, including running her own consulting firm, but was new to DOE.

She has pushed for significant changes to streamline and cut the rising costs of DOE environmental cleanup.

She had taken a close interest in the Hanford nuclear reservation, visiting five times, and choosing the site to launch a new “end states” contracting plan.

She is using the new contracting model for the tank farm and central site contracts. She pushed an aggressive schedule to have the new 10-year contracts awarded in late July or August.

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 also had pushed for a change to how DOE defines high level radioactive waste.

The proposal has been controversial with some saying it would provide opportunities for DOE to speed up cleanup at Hanford as costs are skyrocketing while others were saying it would give DOE free rein to cut corners on cleanup.

Much of the nation’s high level radioactive waste is at Hanford, where 56 million gallons of waste are stored in underground tank awaiting processing for disposal.

The waste is left from the production of plutonium at Hanford in Eastern Washington from World War II through the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

NNSA official takes over

William “Ike” White will take over Anne White’s duties, serving as senior adviser to DOE Under Secretary Paul Dabbar.

Ike White currently is the National Nuclear Security Administration’s associate principal deputy administrator.

“Moving forward, consistency at the top level of DOE leadership is extremely important to the successful cleanup of Hanford and other sites across the country,” said David Reeploeg, vice president of federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council.

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William “Ike” White

Anne White’s many visits to Hanford demonstrated her commitment to DOE’s work at Hanford and to the Tri-Cities, he said.

Just two months ago, she had met with community leaders for a roundtable discussion in the Tri-Cities.

In an interview with the Herald then, White said that new approaches could lead to more efficient cleanup of Hanford, but that implementing them would require open minds.

Board members of Hanford Communities — a coalition of Hanford-area city, county and other governments — met with Anne White several times “and were very impressed with her commitment to get cleanup work done in a timely manner and reduce overhead costs,” said Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities.

Defining nuclear waste

Hanford Communities supported her effort to look at waste classification definitions and move toward a system that makes decisions on how to treat radioactive waste for disposal based on its risk and level of radioactivity rather than where it came from.

“This approach will give Hanford a chance to ship waste off site that does not need to be placed in a deep geological repository,” Larsen said.

All tank waste is high level by definition because it is the byproduct of chemically reprocessing irradiation uranium fuel to remove the small amount of plutonium it contains.

Changing how DOE applies the definition of high level waste would make it easier to proceed with a proposal to turn some of the tank waste with low radioactivity into a stable, grout-like form for disposal at a commercial repository for low level waste in Texas.

High level tank waste must be disposed of in a deep geological repository, such as the one proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

“(Anne White’s) approach will advance the Hanford cleanup and reduce costs,” Mayor Bob Thompson, chairman of Hanford Communities, said previously. “This is very important because cost estimates are escalating at an alarming rate.”

Concerns about Hanford costs

In January, DOE announced a new estimate for the remaining cost of cleanup at Hanford, saying it could range from $323 billion to $677 billion. The previous estimate, released in 2016, put remaining costs at as little as $108 billion.

Perry called the estimate “shocking,” and also was concerned that new projections pushed the completion of most Hanford cleanup from 2066 to sometime between 2079 and 2102.

The dramatically increased costs have raised concerns, among TRIDEC and local government officials, about convincing Congress to continue to fund Hanford at needed levels for decades to come if ways cannot be found to reduce costs and speed cleanup.

However, Seattle-based Hanford Challenge has been skeptical of the dramatically increased cost estimates, which came as DOE under White’s leadership was proposing changing how it applies the definition of high level waste,

“We hope DOE just returns to a compliance mentality rather than a defiance-of-the-law mentality,” said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge executive director, on Friday.

Hanford Challenge joined other environmental and nuclear waste cleanup watchdog groups in criticizing the proposal earlier this year.

They said it would violate the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and would allow DOE to “abandon extraordinary amounts of the world’s most toxic waste at nuclear weapons cleanup site,” including at the Hanford tank farms just miles from the Columbia River.

Energy secretary praises Anne White

The memo from Perry said that Anne White had “shown a true passion” for cleaning up the nation’s environmental legacy resulting from decades of nuclear weapons.

“Anne’s service to the Department of Energy and to this nation are greatly appreciated,” Perry said.

Anne White, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, chatted with Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., left, at the dedication ceremony for the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center in Richland in May 2018. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

DOE has not discussed reasons for her resignation.

It comes as DOE has been in the news after an Ohio school district closed a building near DOE’s Portsmouth, Ohio, Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The Associated Press reported that in 2017 trace amounts of radioactive neptunium were detected on school grounds and more recently, traces of enriched uranium were found within the school.

Environmental cleanup of the site, where enriched uranium was produced, began in 1989.

Hanford contracts employ 6,000 workers

It’s also not clear whether the change in leadership could delay the award of three major new contracts at Hanford that would employ about 6,000 workers. The new contracts replace expiring contracts.

In addition to new contracts for the Hanford tank farms and central Hanford cleanup, a new sitewide services contract also has been tentatively set for award in August.

DOE has estimated the value of the three contracts over 10 years at $21 billion to $33 billion.

The tank farm and central Hanford cleanup contracts use the new “end states” contract model, with DOE asking bidders on the new contracts not what they can accomplish in a decade but what they can do in six months to a year.

The work for the remainder of the decade would be assigned as contractors propose to DOE what work they believe they can complete and tasks to be done are negotiated.

Other cleanup personnel changes

Ike White’s background includes work at both the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and also the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within DOE responsible for the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Currently he is the primary contact within the NNSA Office of the Administrator for managers at field offices, such as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

He provides coordination on operational and technical issues.

Previously he was the NNSA deputy associate administrator for safety and health

DOE employees also were told Monday that Todd Shrader, manager of DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office in New Mexico overseeing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, would become the principal deputy assistant secretary for the DOE environmental management program.

He replaces Mark Gilbertson, who will become director of DOE’s National Laboratory Operations Board.

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.