TRIDEC: Consent decree could put other Hanford work at risk

The state of Washington’s focus on Hanford waste tanks and the vitrification plant could come at a big price to the rest of environmental cleanup at the nuclear reservation, according to the Tri-City Development Council.

TRIDEC warned Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a letter this week that some of those other projects — including radioactive waste stored underwater and a uranium plume threatening groundwater — pose a more immediate risk to the public and the environment.

The state’s proposed changes to the Hanford consent decree call for budget increases to pay for more more tank and vit plant work, which “does a great disservice to the Hanford cleanup, as Hanford is certainly not a one-issue or one-waste stream site,” the letter said.

The consent decree includes deadlines for emptying some of Hanford’s leak-prone tanks and for building and operating the vitrification plant to turn the waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The federal Department of Energy has said most of those deadlines are at risk of being missed.

Recent discussions with U.S. senators and representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, have convinced TRIDEC there is little possibility that the Hanford budget will be increased to pay for new consent decree requirements, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.

TRIDEC estimates that the state’s proposed consent decree would add $300 million to $400 million to annual costs at Hanford. That does not include adding at least eight more leak-proof waste storage tanks, which the state wants. Estimates on costs of designing and building tanks have varied, but TRIDEC estimates the cost for the eight tanks at $800 million.

DOE’s more modest proposed changes to the consent decree would add about $100 million to annual costs, TRIDEC estimates.

Even without the consent decree modifications, the Obama administration is proposing a reduction next year of almost $100 million to the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office budget for all work except that related to underground tanks and the vitrification plant. It’s driven, in part, by a proposed reduction of DOE environmental cleanup spending across the nation during tight federal budget times.

Work under the Office of River Protection, which includes tanks and the vit plant, is important, but no more important than work done by the Richland Operations Office, TRIDEC said in the letter.

At least one of Hanford’s 149 single-shell tanks is leaking radioactive waste into the soil and the oldest of its 28 double-shell tanks has a leak within its shells.

But the double-shell tank is containing the leaked waste within its outer shell as it was designed to do. And much of the liquid waste has been previously pumped from the single-shell tanks, minimizing the amount that can leak to the environment, according to TRIDEC.

The Tri-Cities community expects work on the vitrification plant and tank farms to continue as planned, the letter said.

“We simply believe that the tanks do not present an immediate and urgent threat to the environment and public, and so they should be dealt with on a schedule and with a funding profile that is reasonable, achievable and allows cleanup elsewhere on the Hanford Site to continue at the same time,” the letter said.

Among pressing projects elsewhere at Hanford is moving capsules of cesium and strontium stored underwater to dry storage. They contain 53 million curies of radioactivity. The waste is currently stored in the Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility basin, which has a deteriorating lining and is at risk from a severe earthquake, according to a recent memo from the DOE Office of Inspector General.

In addition, the facility’s ventilation system is contaminated with 300,000 curies of radioactivity, and filters need to be removed and disposed of in a central Hanford landfill for radioactive waste, according to TRIDEC.

Radioactive sludge held in underwater containers in the K West Basin near the Columbia River is costing $20 million annually for oversight, TRIDEC said. The sludge, which contains more than 550,000 curies of radioactivity, needs to be moved to central Hanford for treatment.

In central Hanford a plume of uranium is perched underground about 20 feet above groundwater and needs to be pumped up and treated before it reaches the groundwater, TRIDEC said.

The 324 Building — just north of Richland and not far from the Columbia River — poses another risk. It sits over a highly radioactive spill from one of its hot cells into the soil beneath.

Those projects require more money than is included in the administration’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget proposal, TRIDEC said.

The projects likely will not receive needed funding as Congress develops its budget for Hanford if the state and the administration continue to focus only on the vitrification plant and waste tanks, TRIDEC said.

Legal action on the consent decree also could threaten those projects. A judge could order more work on the vit plant or waste tanks, at the expense of other projects, TRIDEC said.

“Our community feels very strongly that moving the consent decree to the courts will negatively impact Hanford cleanup across the board,” the letter said.

TRIDEC does like a proposal to start treating some low-activity radioactive waste now stored in underground tanks while technical issues are resolved elsewhere at the vit plant, the letter said.

TRIDEC also appreciated DOE’s effort to gather community input on its consent decree proposal at a Richland public meeting earlier this week. The state should also present its proposal in the Tri-City area and invite public input, Petersen said.

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