Wyden, as committee chairman, plans to focus on issues vital to Hanford

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., will use his leadership of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to make issues at the Hanford nuclear reservation a higher priority in the Senate, he said Tuesday after touring Hanford.

"There is not going to be a shortage of hearings as long as I am the chairman," he said.

With a nominee for energy secretary to replace Steven Chu expected to be named soon, he'll be asking questions about Hanford when the nominee comes before his committee, the senator said.

Wyden plans to secure a commitment from the nominee to treat and dispose of all 56 million gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford now stored in underground tanks, Wyden said. That includes resolving technical challenges in a cost effective way at the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste, he said.

DOE has said that it may not be able to build the plant for $12.2 billion as planned, but a new cost cannot be determined until technical issues are resolved.

The visit to Hanford, Wyden's first since 2001, was planned before Friday's announcement that a likely leak from an underground storage tank of radioactive waste had been discovered. None of Hanford's 149 single-shell tanks was known to be leaking since work was completed to pump out liquids in 2004.

The leak from Tank T-111, which has held waste since World War II, is one of his top three concerns, he said. It signifies the growing risk to the environment from Hanford's aging single-shell tanks, he said.

He's also concerned about technical issues at the vit plant and the deterioration of Hanford's first double-shell tank, one of 28 built to hold waste emptied from single-shell tanks until the waste can be treated for disposal. In October, DOE confirmed that Tank AY-102 was leaking waste from its inner shell into the outer shell.

Among issues at the vit plant are concerns about keeping waste well mixed to prevent an unplanned nuclear reaction, preventing the build-up of flammable hydrogen and preventing erosion and corrosion of tanks and piping that would cripple the plant before it has treated all the waste.

The Department of Energy cannot "say what changes are needed and at what cost," he said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber have called for more tanks to be built to safely store waste until it can be turned into a stable glass form for disposal.

"I very much share their concerns," Wyden said. But more study is needed before that decision is made to make sure the significant cost of new tanks is the best use of limited DOE funds, he said.

Peter Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said he's concerned about all of Hanford's single-shell tanks.

"They are old and aging," he said.

But with the Tank T-111 potential leak just revealed Friday, he's just now seeing data on the tank and the scope of the problem, he said.

Wyden was accompanied on his tour by Winokur and David Huizenga, senior adviser for DOE's Office of Environmental Management.

Wyden also met with whistleblowers, whom he did not name, during his visit to the Tri-Cities and will continue to meet with them, he said. The vitrification plant project has had senior managers raise technical issues as whistleblowers.

Whistleblowers described at length changes they want made to improve the safety culture at the plant, Wyden said.

He'll review what they had to say and also will consider what additional protections whistleblowers may need, he said.

Wyden replaced retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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