Work to clean Hanford waste and protect Columbia River is behind schedule. Is court action next?

The Department of Energy is unlikely to meet major deadlines for emptying leak-prone underground radioactive waste tanks and treating the waste for disposal, according to the Washington state Department of Ecology.

If Ecology, a Hanford regulator, and DOE cannot negotiate a mutually acceptable plan, the state could take DOE back to federal court or take other enforcement action, according to a letter sent last week by Maia Bellon, the director of the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The letter, obtained and made public by Hanford Challenge, a Seattle-based watchdog group, was sent to Anne White, the head of environmental cleanup for Hanford and other nuclear weapons sites. White resigned last week.

Bellon said the state wanted to open a “frank discussion” about challenges DOE is having in meeting legal deadlines. She proposed negotiations that last no more than six to nine months to “put us on a holistic path forward that addresses all of Hanford’s tank waste through to completion of treatment.”

Tank waste is a concern because aging storage tanks put the groundwater beneath them at risk of contamination with highly toxic waste. The groundwater is moving toward the Columbia River about five miles away.

State outlines Hanford deadline requirements

The state wants to work with DOE to identify a “realistic path forward for Hanford’s tank waste, one that addresses all aspects of the tank waste mission and, ideally, does not need to be revisited every few years,” Bellon said.

But the state will not be budging on key terms, she said.

Any new proposal must require that the $17 billion vitrification plant now under construction start treating, or glassifying, low activity waste by the current court-enforced consent decree deadline of 2023, Bellon said.

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The Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant is required by a federal court to start treating low activity radioactive waste now held in underground tanks by 2023. The Department of Energy is considering how it can have a system operating to prepare the waste to feed the plant by then. Courtesy Bechtel National

High level waste treatment must start on a time frame as close to current consent decree deadlines as possible, she said. The consent decree calls for the Pretreatment and High Level Waste Facilities to be ready to treat waste by 2033 and the vitrification plant to be fully operational by 2036.

Work to empty single shell tanks must continue without significant breaks, Bellon said.

All tank waste disposed of by burial at a Hanford landfill for low activity waste must be treated through vitrification or another method that is as protective of Hanford groundwater as a glass waste form produced by vitrification would be, Bellon said.

Temporary measures will be needed to store and manage tank waste while single shell tanks are being emptied and tank waste is being treated, she said.

Hanford has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks. Waste is being emptied from 149 leak-prone single shell tanks into 27 newer double shell tanks for storage until the waste can be treated, but the double shell tanks are running short on space.

The state wants to require DOE to design and permit new storage tanks that meet modern standards to give Ecology some confidence that there is a contingency plan ready if DOE cannot meet its legal obligations under the consent decree and Tri-Party Agreement.

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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

If DOE and the state cannot agree on a mutually acceptable path forward for tank waste retrieval and treatment, the state could notify the federal court of anticipated breaches of the consent decree deadlines.

It could also take enforcement action on missed Tri-Party Agreement deadlines, including imposing deadlines on DOE.

The Tri-Party Agreement includes legal deadlines mutually agreed to by DOE, Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Hanford nuclear reservation produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program through the Cold War, and the site remains contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste.

Waste treatment start questioned

Hanford officials continue to publicly maintain that the site is on track to start treating some waste at the vitrification plant by a consent decree deadline of 2023. Construction of the plant started in 2002.

But the Department of Ecology says it is concerned that DOE may not meet the deadline.

It cited issues with the system to separate out low activity waste from the high level radioactive waste held in underground tanks, a step before treatment can start.

DOE told the state in 2017 that it believed it would start a pretreatment system to prepare waste for treatment in 2024, a year after its deadline to start treatment.

Fog surrounds the Low-Activity Waste Facility at Hanford Courtesy Bechtel National

In 2018 DOE switched course, no longer planning to construct a pretreatment facility for low activity waste. Instead, it is pursuing a smaller tank-side system to supply low activity waste for treatment by 2023.

Multiple additional tank-side treatment systems will be needed to maintain low activity waste treatment at the vitrification plant at the levels required by the consent decree, Bellon said.

DOE faces additional consent decree deadlines related to high level radioactive waste, with Bellon’s letter recapping recent reports on issues with treating that waste.

Ecology is concerned enough that it is holding weekly meetings with DOE to discuss options and possible revised plans for high level waste.

Legal action against possible

But that “does not indicate the state is conceding to, accepting or acquiescing in any alternative path forward that is different that has been agreed to in the . . . amended consent decree between our two agencies,” Bellon said.

Technical issues related to high level waste have stopped construction at the plant’s large Pretreatment Facility, which was planned to separate all the tank waste into low activity and high level waste streams for separate treatment.

The technical issues also have delayed some construction on the High Level Waste Facility, meant to turn high level radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal.

With work on those two facilities delayed, DOE switched to a plan to pretreat low activity waste with a new system and glassify it at the vit plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility.

An Army Corps of Engineers evaluation last summer concluded that DOE could not meet consent decree deadlines to have the Pretreatment Facility substantially complete in 2030 and the High Level Waste Facility substantially completed in 2031 at the planned funding level of $690 million a year.

The Pretreatment Facility is so far over budget and so far behind schedule that DOE is looking at other options for pretreating high level waste that would bypass the vit plant’s Pretreatment Facility, just as it plans for pretreating low activity waste.

DOE also will be unable to meet deadlines in the Tri-Party Agreement for emptying all single shell tanks of radioactive waste and treating all 56 million gallons of tank waste by 2047 given current funding levels, Bellon said.

In recent years Congress has appropriated up to $2.5 billion a year for Hanford environmental cleanup.

History of missed waste deadlines

DOE is facing mounting challenges emptying single shell tanks, and the longer the waste stays in the tanks the more difficult it is to retrieve and the older the tanks get, she said. DOE has so far emptied 17 single shell tanks to regulatory standards, pumping the waste into just 27 newer double shell tanks until it can be treated.

Bellon repeated the state’s concerns that DOE needs more double shell tanks. DOE has maintained that its budget could be better spent on advancing cleanup rather than building more storage tanks.

Issues with the current deadlines go back to 2007 when the Department of Ecology and DOE began negotiating extensions to Tri-Party Agreement deadlines related to Hanford tank waste as it became clear DOE could not meet the deadlines set then.

Single shell tanks were required to be emptied by September 2018, the vitrification plant was supposed to be ready to start treating waste in early 2011 and all tank waste was required to be treated by 2028.

With no agreement through negotiations, Ecology filed a lawsuit against DOE in 2008 that resulted in some initial consent decree deadlines in 2010.

But within 13 months, DOE told Ecology that nearly all consent decree deadlines were at risk of being missed. The consent decree was amended then by a federal judge to push out the start of low activity radioactive waste by three years to 2023, the start of high level waste treatment by 14 years to 2033 and full operations by 14 years to 2036.

The Tri-Party Agreement also was changed in 2010 to require single shell tanks to be emptied by 2040 and all tank waste to be treated by 2047.

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.