Hanford

State frustrated as feds halt work on Hanford radioactive waste test

Hanford prepares to treat radioactive waste at the vitrification plant

The Department of Energy is preparing to start turning some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form at the Hanford vitrification plant.
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The Department of Energy is preparing to start turning some of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form at the Hanford vitrification plant.

The Department of Energy has withdrawn its application for a state permit for the next phase of a pilot project it says could treat some of Hanford’s radioactive waste sooner and at less cost to taxpayers.

The state said Friday it was “puzzled and frustrated” by the withdrawal.

The withdrawal sends a message that the project — the Test Bed Initiative or TBI — is not a true priority for DOE, the state said.

DOE had applied for a Washington state Department of Ecology permit for the second phase of the Test Bed Initiative, which would send 2,000 gallons off Hanford to a commercial facility to be turned into a concrete-like form and then sent to a new repository in Texas for disposal.

DOE notified the state in writing late Thursday afternoon that it was withdrawing its application. The public comment period on the application was set to start Friday.

The waste was expected to be treated this year as part of the second phase of a pilot project, the Test Bed Initiative, that previously tested the process on three gallons of waste.

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The blue drum holds three gallons of waste, the first Hanford radioactive tank waste being shipped off the nuclear reservation for treatment and disposal. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

The withdrawal of the application came less than a week after a key DOE official who backed the plan resigned.

However, DOE told the state it was withdrawing its permit application in light of Ecology’s request to negotiate new legal deadlines for Hanford cleanup.

Talks proposed on Hanford deadlines

Maia Bellon, the director of Ecology, sent a letter to DOE last week saying the state is concerned that DOE is not on track to meet key legal deadlines for emptying leak-prone waste storage tanks at Hanford and for treating the waste at the $17 billion vitrification plant under construction.

She proposed a “frank discussion” about the challenges the state believes DOE is having in meeting legal deadlines and six to nine months of negotiations to agree on a realistic path forward.

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, Bellon said. DOE has deadlines set by a court-enforced consent decree and other legally binding deadlines agreed to by DOE in the 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

Ecology told DOE in a letter sent Friday that it was puzzled because nothing in Bellon’s letter mentioned the Test Bed Initiative or indicated that the demonstration project to prove the viability and worth of the concept should not go forward.

The letter was sent by Alex Smith, program manager of the Ecology Nuclear Waste Program, to Brian Vance, DOE manager of Hanford.

Smith told that Herald Friday that the state thinks the Test Bed Initiative concept shows potential, but that the state has disagreed about its timing.

The vitrification plant was not planned to be large enough to treat all 56 million gallons of Hanford’s radioactive waste in a reasonable period of time. The waste is left from the past chemical processing of irradiated uranium fuel to separate out plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Schedule stretched state staffing

DOE will need a supplemental way to treat some of the tank waste, but Ecology has said that the focus now should be on starting to treat some waste at the plant by a court-enforced deadline of 2023 and preparing to have the entire plant operating by 2036.

The May 29 letter from Bellon indicated both of those deadlines could be missed. DOE maintains it is on track to meet the 2023 deadline and is looking at options that could allow it to meet the 2036 deadline.

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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. Courtesy Bechtel National

Although Ecology would have preferred that DOE hold off on pursuing the Test Bed Initiative until waste treatment had started at the vitrification plant, it knew the initiative was a priority of Anne White and of the local community, Smith said.

White, the assistant secretary for environmental management, resigned a week ago, apparently under pressure from more senior DOE leadership.

Both the Tri-City Development Council and Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments, have supported the initiative.

Ecology was moving forward as quickly as possible with work for the permit even though its staff already was overloaded with work on permits for DOE’s new strategy to start treating low activity radioactive waste, according to Smith.

Because technical issues have put construction on hold on parts of the vitrification plant that will handle high level radioactive waste, including the Pretreatment Facility, DOE is proceeding with plans for new and smaller facilities to prepare low activity waste for treatment at the plant that require extensive permit revisions.

“We asked our staff to go above and beyond and put in countless extra hours to process the TBI permit,” Smith told DOE.

“To have U.S. DOE pull the permit application the day before it was to go out for public comment makes little sense to the state,” Smith said.

The withdrawal sends a message the initiative is not a true priority for tank waste work or needed for DOE to meet its waste treatment obligations, both of which were concerns the state raised when the second phase of the initiative was proposed, Smith told DOE.

Test Bed Initiative advantages

“We are disappointed that our (Ecology and DOE) collective efforts are again for naught, as U.S. DOE changes course yet again,” Smith said in the letter to DOE.

DOE completed the first phase of the Test Bed Initiative in late 2017, showing that three gallons of low activity tank waste could be commercially treated and then shipped to Waste Control Specialists in Texas for disposal.

At the start of the year it awarded a $4.8 million contract to Aerostar Perma-Fix TRU Services to scale up testing to 2,000 gallons.

DOE said in a fact sheet that the Test Bed Initiative would show near-term progress by shipping waste out of state and that the method could be an option for treatment and disposal of more Hanford waste without the need for new construction work.

A Government Accountability Office report released in May 2017 quoted Waste Control Specialists as saying that grouting waste could cost up to $16.5 billion less than expanding the vitrification plant to meet supplemental treatment requirements to treat all of the tank waste.

DOE also has said that the initiative has the potential for significant cost savings.

In addition, it could free up space in double-shell tanks. The waste in 149 leak-prone single-shell tanks are being emptied into 27 double-shell tanks, which are nearing capacity, until the waste can be treated for disposal.

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.

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