At least four and possibly more legal deadlines for environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation could be at risk under the administration's proposed 2015 Hanford budget, according to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
She questioned Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at a hearing Wednesday of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development about how deadlines can be met if the budget is reduced and about the need for a comprehensive plan for the Hanford vitrification plant.
Significant progress has been made at Hanford to clean up land along the Columbia River, keeping contaminants out of the river, Murray said. The Department of Energy plans to have most of the work completed by next year.
"However, several high-risk projects close to the city of Richland, Columbia River and the Energy Northwest facility remain to be completed," she said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
Those include the highly radioactive waste spill under the 324 Building just north of Richland and the 618-11 Burial Ground just off the parking lot of Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant near Richland.
The proposed fiscal 2015 budget would cut $98 million from the current spending level for work under the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, which could hamper progress, Murray said.
"It is unacceptable for DOE to kick the can down the road," she said. "Nor is it acceptable to me and the Tri-Cities community to put near-term Tri-Party Agreement milestones at risk."
Less than 24 hours after the Obama administration released its proposed 2015 budget, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told Murray that "legal commitments are something that are very important and the administration takes very seriously and has put forward a budget that we believe enables us to do that."
Murray on Wednesday asked Moniz to confirm Burwell's commitment to meet legally binding deadlines in the Tri-Party Agreement and asked him how he could do that despite a $98 million cut.
"I would have to look in detail at the specific milestones and get back to you," Moniz said.
Tri-Party Agreement and court-enforced consent decree deadlines are both very important, he said.
"The issue is how do we best fit all of this into the available resources and that's something I would love to be able to brainstorm on," he said.
DOE has already said that it may not be able to meet most of the remaining deadlines in the consent decree, including all of the deadlines for the vitrification plant. The DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, rather than the Richland Operations Office, is responsible for work to meet the consent decree deadlines for emptying waste from underground tanks and having the vitrification plant at full operation in 2022 to treat the waste for disposal.
As the deadlines are renegotiated, DOE is trying "to bring discipline and realism to the process," Moniz said. DOE wants to propose a new schedule in phases as technical issues are resolved at the vitrification plant.
DOE is considering starting to treat low-activity radioactive waste at the plant as work continues to resolve issues related to high-level radioactive waste and build the facilities needed for that waste. Construction is stopped at the plant on a portion of the High Level Radioactive Waste Facility and all of the Pretreatment Facility, which will separate waste into high-level and low-activity waste streams for separate treatment.
Treating the low-activity waste before the Pretreatment Facility is operating will require a new facility to be built to remove some high-level waste from liquid that is primarily low-activity waste.
But starting treatment early of the low-activity waste will provide valuable experience in operating the vitrification plant, Moniz said.
Other changes are proposed, including simplifying the design of the Pretreatment Facility, to resolve issues to keep waste well-mixed. Some large, complicated mixing tanks would be replaced with smaller and uniform tanks.
"Are you confident on the technology on this?" Murray asked.
DOE is preparing a full-scale demonstration of waste mixing, which should answer many questions, Moniz said.
"If that comes out as we expect, then I will say I'm very confident," he said. "But we have to address these technical issues. We have been very up front -- they have not been resolved."
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews