Energy secretary announces Hanford leadership change after 20 years

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has notified Congress that there will be just one manager responsible for both DOE Hanford offices.

Brian Vance will continue to lead the Richland Operations Office and the Office of River Protection.

He has been serving as acting leader of both offices during an eight-month trial run.

Making the change permanent is intended to provide better coordination for the Hanford site, without interrupting funding for the massive nuclear waste cleanup project.

The two offices will remain separate, as required by Congress. But the federal law does not require that the organizational structure of the offices remain unchanged, Perry said.

In 1998, former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., divided Hanford work into two offices by creating the Office of River Protection in addition to the Richland Operations Office.

The 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in eastern Washington state was once used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Courtesy Department of Energy

Congress has ordered that the two offices at Hanford remain separate until at least through 2024.

That includes separate budgets, helping to justify the combined funding for Hanford of about $2.5 billion a year, more than any other DOE defense environmental cleanup site.

For 20 years the offices had separate managers.

But in February, Vance was named the acting manager of both after the former Richland Operations Office manager, Doug Shoop, retired. Previously, Vance was manager only of the Office of River Protection.

“Over the past eight months, the single manager model has proven effective,” Perry told Congress.

Hanford waste treatment

A greater degree of coordination will be needed between the two DOE Hanford offices as they get ready to start treating some of the least radioactive of the 56 million gallons of waste stored in underground tanks by the end of 2023.

The waste is left from the past production of about two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

The Office of River Protection is responsible for the tank waste storage and the $17 billion vitrification plant being built and tested to treat much of the tank waste.

The Richland Operations Office is responsible for other environmental cleanup at the nuclear reservation, including tearing down contaminated buildings, digging up buried waste and treating polluted groundwater.

Hanford workers train within T Plant, the nation’s longest operating nuclear facility, on packaging radioactive waste. Courtesy Department of Energy

It also is responsible for site services, such as electricity, water, sewer and roads — services important to the success of the tank waste treatment, Perry said.

Joint leadership will keep the two site offices separate as required by law for budget preparation, contracting and financial management, Perry said.

But a common manager will help ensure a high degree of coordination, collaboration and communication during a time of transition and opportunity at Hanford, he said.

Vance sent a message to Hanford workers Tuesday morning, echoing Perry’s comments about benefits.

He also said that teamwork between the two offices will be important during contract transitions.

DOE has requested bids as key Hanford contracts are set to expire.

The Mission Support Alliance contract, which has been extended for six months, expires in November after more than a decade. Mission Support Alliance is responsible for providing services across Hanford.

The Washington River Protection Solutions contract for tank waste management and the CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. contract for central Hanford and groundwater cleanup have been extended through September 2020. Each are on their 12th year of work at Hanford after being awarded 10-year contracts.

Vance will continue to rely on deputy managers at each DOE Hanford office to lead day-to-day operations, as they have for eight months.

Joe Franco is deputy manager at the Richland Operations office and Ben Harp is deputy manager at the Office of River Protection.

Some functions of the two Hanford offices have been combined in recent years, including sharing a joint chief financial officer and some legal, security and infrastructure employees.

Richland Operations Office employees have moved from the Richland Federal Building to the Stevens Center complex in Richland, where Office of River Protection employees work.

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.