Tri-Party Agreement: Hanford cleanup began 25 years ago

The massive project to clean up more than 40 years of contamination from weapons plutonium production at Hanford began 25 years ago this week.

With some optimism, representatives of the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington signed a document agreeing to requirements and deadlines to largely restore Hanford land to condition before it was seized as a federal nuclear reservation.

In May 1989, those negotiating what became known as the Tri-Party Agreement were unsure of the extent of contamination in the ground and groundwater at Hanford.

They didn't know what technology could be used to clean it up. They didn't know how to do the work or how to protect the workers involved in the often hazardous work.

But they outlined a cleanup plan they hoped would restore the site over 30 years.

Instead, Hanford cleanup is taking far longer and costing far more.

By some estimates, 25 years into cleanup the work might be about a third done.

Now officials are looking at continuing cleanup work into the 2060s -- making it about a 75-year project.

Progress as measured by dollars shows work further from completion.

A little more than $30 billion has been spent on cleanup. But the last estimate by DOE put remaining costs at about $113 billion.

No guarantees made

When the Tri-Party Agreement was signed, officials knew it was unlikely to be 100 percent successful.

Randy Smith, who led negotiations for the Environmental Protection Agency, has retold the story of a man pointing his finger at him during a public meeting and demanding, "Can you guarantee me this site will be completely clean in 30 years?"

Smith replied: "No. But I can tell you it will be a lot cleaner than it is today."

By that gauge, the first 25 years has been successful.

DOE points to removing just more than 2,500 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel from underwater storage in the leaky K Basins near the Columbia River and putting them in dry storage in central Hanford.

Eight billion gallons of contaminated groundwater have been cleaned.

Workers have removed 7.5 million gallons of liquid waste from leak-prone underground tanks and 1.25 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge and saltcake waste from the tanks.

Hundreds of buildings, some of them highly contaminated, have been torn down, and hundreds of waste sites with contaminated soil and debris have been dug up.

"The site is much safer because of all the activities that have happened since 1989," said Matt McCormick, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

But Roy Gephart, recently retired chief environmental scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, questions how much cleanup has been done in 25 years.

"There has been significant waste management on the site," he said. But he sees little change in the approximately 400 million curies of radioactivity as measured in waste and materials at Hanford, and little change in the approximately 400,000 tons of chemicals in Hanford tanks, soil and water.

"Where are the successes in reducing risk?" he asked. "We're not doing much active, permanent cleanup."

Waste dumping came to end

Work at Hanford initially focused on the sorts of issues that kept people who understood Hanford awake at night.

"There were a lot of immediate risks where things that could go very wrong, very quickly have been resolved," said Ken Niles, Oregon Department of Energy administrator.

That included risks such as stabilizing tanks on the "Wyden Watch List," named for Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who was concerned that radioactive waste in some of Hanford's 177 underground tanks was at risk to explode or catch fire.

Moving irradiated fuel stored in the K Basins away from the river eliminated another immediate risk.

Dennis Faulk, the EPA Hanford program manager, says one of the biggest successes of the Tri-Party Agreement was to stop the practice of discharging liquid waste, some of it with radioactive contamination, into the ground at Hanford.

In 1989, as much as 22,000 gallons of contaminated water a minute were still being dumped into the ground at Hanford. It contaminated the soil, it contaminated the groundwater and it raised the water table, pushing contaminated water toward the Columbia River.

The agreement called for 33 of the worst discharges to be stopped in 1995 and the rest in 1997 -- a deadline that was met.

Another major success was reversing a DOE proposal to leave 49 waste burial grounds near the river undisturbed and to put caps over them to prevent rain water from seeping down and pushing contamination toward groundwater and then the river, Faulk said.

DOE's logic was that EPA had done that at landfills around the nation.

"But these were not your typical landfills," Faulk said.

Instead, most were dug up. And among the surprises found was a safe holding a container with World War II plutonium in a liquid solution and highly radioactive pieces of irradiated uranium fuel.

Groundwater treatment is another success DOE and its regulators agree on, though Faulk said, "We have a long way to go."

Some 10 billion gallons of groundwater have been treated and 98 tons of contamination removed.

However, an estimated 65 to 80 square miles of contaminated groundwater will take time to clean.

Some, if not most, of the needed systems are in place. They strip chromium contamination out of groundwater near the river, preventing most of the contamination from entering the water.

And in central Hanford, a range of radioactive and chemical contaminants are being removed from groundwater. Each month, enough water is treated to cover a football field 460 feet deep, McCormick said.

It was public pressure that made groundwater cleanup a priority at Hanford.

Public input part of pact

"There was a huge public clamor to protect the Columbia River," said John Price, Tri-Party Agreement section manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The public involvement required by the Tri-Party Agreement is one of its strengths, McCormick said. The agreement requires more public involvement than the laws regulating cleanup, giving the public a chance to influence important decisions about cleanup priorities and standards.

Mike Lawrence, who signed the Tri-Party Agreement for DOE as the DOE Hanford manager in 1989, said the agreement has exceeded his expectations.

"And that is in full recognition of the conditions that exist today," he said.

The agreement lasted 21 years before a portion of Hanford cleanup was moved under a court-enforced consent decree because of problems meeting deadlines in 2010 for some of the most difficult work -- emptying radioactive waste tanks and treating the waste.

That consent decree is again the subject of controversy after DOE announced that most remaining deadlines in the consent decree are at risk.

But Lawrence said the cleanup that proceeded under a good-faith agreement for more than two decades "was wonderful."

"We knew we were dealing with imperfect information and needed to be flexible so we could modify milestones and objectives based on information as we really got hard data," he said.

The agreement, which has had more than 1,200 deadlines, has had more than 640 changes to deadlines or other modifications.

Cleanup possibility questioned

In the 25 years since the agreement was signed, far more waste was found than was ever anticipated, Faulk said.

"It took years for us to get our feet on the ground," he said.

In the early years there was concern about whether cleanup could even be done and questions about how to safely do work such as dig up waste, he said.

The cleanup work has "contained every cleanup challenge in the remediation industry," from contaminated groundwater to treatment of high radioactive waste and everything in between, McCormick said.

It's been complicated by its proximity to the Columbia River and its importance to the people of the Northwest, he said.

New challenges continually arise. No plant has ever been built to treat the quantity and complex mixture of the 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks, Hanford officials say.

The cleanup systems put in place must meet nuclear quality standards, built and inspected to the highest standard of operating safety, McCormick said. Workers can require extensive training to make sure hazardous work is done in a predictable and safe manner, he said.

All work is highly regulated -- by the state, the EPA and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board -- and those checks and balances add time and expense, he said.

Some Hanford cleanup work costs two to five times more than similar work done elsewhere in the state, according to Jane Hedges, the state's nuclear waste program manager.

That's, in part, because of the hazardous nature of the work, she said.

Difficult projects remain

One of the state's concerns is that a DOE cost study required by the Tri-Party Agreement shows that Hanford will need a sustained $3 billion to $4 billion a year for the next five years to meet cleanup obligations.

A typical annual budget is closer to $2 billion, with as much as a quarter of that going to noncleanup tasks such as utilities, security, roads, emergency preparedness and maintaining and checking obsolete, contaminated facilities until they can be torn down.

"To be successful in the long-term, there is a need to convert more money from infrastructure and services into cleanup," Faulk said.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, a Hanford watchdog and worker advocacy group, said that a great amount of progress has been made in Hanford cleanup along the river and other projects are slowly being ticked off the list.

But some of the most difficult projects remain.

Aging underground waste tanks are in terrible shape, Carpenter said. The vitrification plant to treat tank waste is plagued with technical questions. And he calls the storage of radioactive cesium and strontium capsules underwater in a degrading concrete basin "terrifying."

If the pools were to lose water or the water could not be kept cool, a fire could start, he said.

He believes the Tri-Party Agreement has outlived its usefulness and should be renegotiated. In fact, he would prefer that DOE not be the owner of Hanford and in charge of environmental cleanup. It's a conflict of interest, he said.

Gephart is concerned that, despite the impressive numbers DOE throws out on cleanup accomplishments, it's talking about comparatively easy work like demolition of buildings, digging up shallow ground contamination and the treatment of only a fraction of the contaminated groundwater to date.

"We do not have a defensible risk reduction study and management approach to understand how best to allocate our limited resources to ensure they are addressing the greatest risk reduction benefits," he said.

As Lawrence looks back at the 25 years of cleanup, he thinks the cleanup plan has stood the test of time.

But as tougher cleanup challenges are tackled, it is important not to make major mistakes, he said.

Now, he said, it's time for the policy leaders to sit down with scientists and discuss what's next.

As with the first 25 years of cleanup, "Something may look simple, but it is much more complex," he said.

Related stories from Tri-City Herald