State fines DOE for failing to meet deadline related to Hanford vit plant

Washington has fined the Department of Energy $5,000 after it missed a deadline to negotiate a schedule related to secondary waste at the Hanford vitrification plant.

The state filed a lawsuit against DOE in 2008 for missed deadlines to empty leak-prone underground waste tanks and complete construction of the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste for disposal.

The lawsuit was settled in 2010 with new deadlines set, and this is the first deadline missed under the settlement agreement.

"The amount of the penalty isn't large, but it emphasizes the state's expectation that DOE honor its commitments at Hanford," said John Price, who supervises the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement for the Washington State Department of Ecology's Nuclear Waste Program.

DOE was required to negotiate a schedule by June 30 to design and build facilities to treat secondary waste that will be created during operation of the vitrification plant's Pretreatment Facility, High Level Waste Facility and Low Activity Waste Facility.

In September, DOE reported it was on schedule to meet the June 30 deadline, and in December the state requested that DOE start negotiations, but that did not happen, Price said.

DOE continued to say it was on schedule through the early months of 2012, but then notified the state it would need to change the June 30 deadline, Price said.

However, DOE did not set a date or explain why an extension was needed as legally required, he said.

DOE requested a change in the deadline "to be established" with no firm date for restarting discussions, according to the state.

The Tri-Party Agreement allows the state to issue a penalty up to $5,000 for the first week after a missed deadline and then a fine of $10,000 per week for each week until it is met.

The fine of $5,000 is meant to get DOE's attention, particularly as it faces a similar deadline at the end of December, Price said.

"We expect them to follow the rules of the TPA," he said.

The December deadline requires DOE to negotiate a schedule for a new storage facility for glassified logs of high-level radioactive waste that will be produced at the vitrification plant.

The treated waste was planned to be sent to a national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. But with work stopped and possibly ended on Yucca Mountain, the high-level waste treated at the vit plant will need to be stored until the nation has a repository for it.

The missed deadline for negotiating a schedule for the facility to treat secondary waste at the vit plant comes as the overall schedule for starting operations of the plant is uncertain.

The plant legally is required to start operating in 2019 and is projected to cost $12.2 billion, but DOE will not be able to finish it by then and at that price.

In February, DOE instructed its contractor Bechtel National to propose a new cost and schedule for the plant, which was due next month.

But in late June, DOE announced that it would delay calculating a new cost and schedule until more technical issues that could affect the safe and efficient operation of the plant are addressed.

In response to the fine, DOE said it would work with the state to reach a mutually agreeable outcome on the issue of treating secondary waste and continue to work with the state regarding regulatory commitments.

"We continue to focus our resources on high risk reduction activities to protect the workers, public and environment," said Lori Gamache, DOE spokeswoman.