State urges DOE to choose vitrification for all Hanford waste

The Department of Energy needs to pick a preferred way to treat all Hanford tank waste before a massive study is released in the next few months, the state Department of Ecology has told DOE headquarters.

DOE has invested eight years and$85 million on the environmental study, but without a conclusion on how all the waste should be treated, the study will be incomplete, the state said in a recent letter. It was sent by Jane Hedges, manager of the Department of Ecology's Nuclear Waste Program, to Tracy Mustin, principal deputy assistant secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management.

The Tank Closure and Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be released by the end of the year, a delay from earlier DOE statements that it might be available this summer.

The comprehensive document will cover topics such as disposal at Hanford of radioactive waste, the end for the Fast Flux Test Facility, retrieval of waste from Hanford's underground tanks and treatment of the tank waste.

But DOE has said it is not ready to pick a method for treating all 56 million gallons of radioactive waste now held in underground tanks. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation's weapons program.

High-level radioactive waste in the tanks will be glassified at the Hanford vitrification plant under construction. But the plant was never planned to treat all of the low-activity radioactive waste now held in the tanks in a reasonable amount of time.

"The department has decided the agency wants to keep its options for treating a portion of the low-activity waste open at this time," said Geoff Tyree, Hanford spokesman.

But the state believes DOE already committed to vitrifying all of the low-activity waste during negotiations that led to a 2010 settlement agreement in the state's lawsuit filed against DOE, according to an attachment to the letter.

The state would like DOE to add a second Low Activity Waste Facility to the Hanford vitrification plant to give the plant the capacity to vitrify all of the low-activity radioactive tank waste by 2047.

But a 2009 draft of the environmental study to be released this year also considers alternative supplemental treatment technologies such as steam reforming and grouting.

The state does not believe they have been shown to be as protective of the environment as glassified waste after the treated low-activity waste is buried at a Hanford landfill. Vitrified high-level radioactive waste would be sent to a national repository, once planned to be at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The state agreed between 2003 and 2006 to let DOE consider alternative treatment approaches as long as they performed "as good as glass," the state said. Then DOE was looking for faster and less-expensive alternatives that produced waste forms that performed as well as glass, according to the state.

"This effort examined many different technologies," according to the letter. "However, in the end no viable approaches were identified."

The state also said that several studies have shown no cost advantages to alternative treatment methods, including grouting or steam reforming.

By delaying picking a preferred way to treat all of the tank waste in the upcoming environmental study, DOE could put related legal deadlines in jeopardy, according to the letter.

By choosing "vague language" on treatment in the environmental study, DOE also is bringing into question its previous commitments about when all waste will be removed from leak-prone single shell tanks and "when and if all the tank waste will be treated," the letter from the state said.

DOE is committed to treating all of Hanford's tank waste, Tyree said.

"We plan to select an efficient and cost-effective method for treating the waste that is also protective of human health and the environment," he said.

It can do that while meeting legal deadlines, including for final selection of a technology by April 30, 2015, he said.

DOE officials previously have said that advances have been made in some treatment technologies.

DOE will be responding to the state with additional information, Tyree said.

The Hanford Advisory Board largely has sided with the state, saying in June that it wanted DOE to discontinue work on alternative treatment methods such as steam reforming and instead plan to treat all tank waste at the vitrification plant.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com