Frustrated state officials order new Hanford deadlines. Millions could be diverted for new tanks

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 state of Washington has unilaterally set new legally binding requirements and deadlines for Hanford cleanup, including requiring the Department of Energy to design new waste storage tanks.

The requirements and deadlines in the Tri-Party Agreement usually are set through negotiations among DOE, the Washington state Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But in this case the Department of Ecology exercised its prerogative to sign off on new deadlines related to the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks at Hanford after growing frustrated that DOE had not negotiated the deadlines as required by spring 2015.

“These milestones are way overdue,” said John Price, Ecology’s Tri-Party Agreement section manager.

It notified DOE of the new deadlines Thursday and Friday.

The Department of Ecology is requiring DOE to complete a design for new waste storage tanks by September 2023.

Capture Hanford tanks map.PNG
Courtesy Department of Energy

DOE has long objected to building new tanks, saying its budgeted money could better be spent treating the tank waste for permanent disposal.

Ecology is required the tank design package to include a safety analysis, final drawings, a cost estimate and the estimated time that would be needed to build the tanks.

Two interim deadlines are included to keep the work on pace, with 30 percent of the design required to be completed in September 2021 and 60 percent in 2022.

Work on new tanks ‘essential’

DOE has 149 leak-prone single shell tanks, the oldest of which were built during World War II.

Waste in the single shell tanks is being emptied into 27 newer double shell tanks for storage until the waste can be treated for disposal. Much of the waste is expected to be treated at the $17 billion vitrification plant that is expected to partially open in 2021.

The Department of Ecology is concerned that the 27 double shell tanks, most with a capacity of a little over 1 million gallons, are nearly full after some space is reserved for emergencies.

“We just think it is essential they get started on new tanks,” Price said.

DOE already has taken the oldest of what were initially 28 double shell tanks out of service after it developed a leak from the inner shell, with radioactive waste accumulating in the space between its two shells.

AY-102 in front, circa 1970.jpg
Construction as underway on Hanford double-shell Tank AY-102, in the foreground, in 1969. The first double-shell tank to be built, it sprang multiple leaks from its inner shell and was taken out of service. Courtesy Department of Energy

When DOE starts treating some radioactive waste at the vitrification plant by 2023, the space in up to four of the double shell tanks space will be needed for preparing the waste for treatment and staging it, Price said.

The lack of available storage space could interfere with work to empty leak-prone single shells or to treat waste, the state said in documents covering the new deadlines.

“Beginning to design and permit such tanks now will reduce the number of years needed to provide new tank capacity, if and when such capacity is deemed necessary,” according to state documents.

DOE has said previously that building one new double-shell tank could cost $100 million, and building a group of six tanks could take five to seven years.

Ecology is not requiring that the tanks to be designed have double shells, but that they have some sort of double containment. For instance, a tank within a vault could meet requirements. It also is not saying how many tanks might be required or where they could be built.

State wants more liquid waste removed

The second new deadline requires DOE to come up with a plan by June 2020 to remove more liquid waste from the leak-prone single shell tanks.

DOE removed most of the easily pumpable liquids from the single shell tanks by summer 2004 to help stop or reduce leaks into the ground beneath the tanks.

However, at least 2.5 million gallons of liquid is estimated to remain in the enclosed, underground tanks, according to Ecology.

“Our thinking is that since the tank waste retrieval is going to extend so far out in the future . . . it makes a lot of sense to get more liquid out because that liquid is what can leak out of the tank and drive contamination down to the groundwater,” Price said.

DOE is required by the Tri-Party Agreement to have tanks emptied of waste by 2040, but Ecology has told DOE it does not believe DOE will be able to meet that deadline.

This 2011 multimedia presentation provides an overview of the Hanford Site—its history, cleanup activities, and a glimpse into the possibilities of future uses of the 586-square-mile government site in southeast Washington State.

The other new deadlines include:

Building five more barriers over the ground at single shell tank farms to keep precipitation from driving radioactive and chemical contamination in the soil from leaks and spills deeper underground. Construction deadlines would range from 2025 to 2033.

DOE already has built two barriers over groups of single shell waste storage tanks and two others already are required to be completed by 2023..

Developing a plan to close the next group of Hanford single shell tanks planned to be largely emptied of waste, the A and AX Tank Farms. Deadlines have been set from 2021 to 2028.

DOE is likely to propose filling the tanks with concrete-like grout and leaving them in the ground.

Setting deadlines for some work already planned to prepare for initial operation of the Hanford vitrification plant.

The deadlines cover dealing with secondary waste created during vit plant operations, some plans to prepare a stream of low-activity radioactive waste for treatment and a planned performance assessment of a lined landfill to dispose of some vitrified waste at Hanford.

DOE has a chance to agree or disagree with the deadlines, but the state makes the final determination.

DOE then could challenge the new deadlines by filing a case in federal court or with the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board.

DOE declined to discuss the issue on Monday as expected given that legal action is possible on the new deadlines.

DOE failed to negotiate deadlines

The action came after DOE failed to negotiate specific plans and deadlines with the state as required in the Tri-Party Agreement by spring 2015.

As part of a settlement agreement reached in 2010 in a federal lawsuit brought by the state against DOE over previously missed deadlines, DOE was required to run computer models every three years of different scenarios for emptying tanks and treating the waste.

vit plant fog.jpg
Fog rolls over the vitrification plant under construction at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Courtesy Bechtel National

DOE also was required to periodically negotiation new deadlines based on information from that computer modeling, called the System Plan.

The first negotiations were required to be completed in 2015, but there were delays, in part because of two lawsuits brought by the state of Washington against DOE related to tank waste. Both have settled.

But four years after the deadline, Ecology officials are no longer willing to extend the deadline, Price said.

In late May, the Department of Ecology sent DOE a letter asking to open negotiation on a broader range of deadlines set by the Tri-Party Agreement and the federal-court enforced revised consent decree related to emptying tanks and treating the waste.

As part of that it said that it wanted to close out the overdue System Plan negotiations and then schedule six to nine months of negotiations on other tank waste matters.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon told DOE in the May letter that Ecology was concerned that DOE could miss major deadlines for emptying single shell waste tanks and treating the waste for disposal.

If Ecology and DOE cannot negotiate a mutually acceptable plan for tank waste retrieval and treatment, the state could take DOE back to federal court or take other enforcement action, Bellon said.

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.