Proposed Hanford 2015 budget partly restores cuts

A proposed U.S. House budget for Hanford next year slightly increases money above the Obama administration's request, but would leave it significantly below current spending.

Budget numbers proposed by the House Appropriations Committee and directions on how the Department of Energy should spend the money were released Tuesday.

The full committee is expected to consider the proposed budget today. Senate numbers could be released later this week.

The House budget would increase total Hanford cleanup spending by just $2 million from the administration's proposal, but it would rebalance spending between the two Hanford offices.

It would restore $25 million of the approximately $100 million the administration proposed to be cut from the Richland Operations Office spending.

But the House budget would cut about $23 million from the administration's proposed spending for the Office of River Protection.

Overall spending at Hanford would still be cut about $69 million from current spending, when spending on security is included in the budget. The overall budget would be just under $2.1 billion, not including spending for security, under the House proposal.

"I'm encouraged by the $25 million restoration for the Richland Operations Office, which will help meet critical cleanup commitments along the river corridor and elsewhere at the site," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

The Richland Operations Office is responsible for all Hanford cleanup except 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste.

The House committee report specifies that at least $235 million of the Richland Operations Office budget must be used for some of the final cleanup along the Columbia River. DOE has planned to have most environmental cleanup there finished in 2015.

The House proposal leaves environmental cleanup work at the tank farms fully funded at $522 million, Hastings said.

The administration had proposed increasing spending for the Hanford tank farms to $545 million in fiscal 2015, which would provide money to start detailed design work on the proposed Low Activity Waste Treatment System. The system would pretreat some liquid tank waste without sending it to the vit plant's Pretreatment Facility, which has technical problems, and allow the vit plant to treat low activity waste earlier.

The vitrification plant budget would hold steady at $690 million, although that budget would have to absorb spending on the system the administration had included in the tank farms budget. The committee directed that $12 million of the plant's budget could be used for design of the pretreatment system to be placed outside the vitrification plant to help mitigate the plant's technical issues.

The committee does not support further acceleration of the plan outlined in a DOE "framework" document to solve technical issues related to tank waste treatment until DOE can provide more information on cost and schedule of the fixes, according to the report.

The report questioned a perceived shift of money from the vit plant to the tank farms to "artificially show" that vit plant spending would remain at $690 million.

"It is essential that the department establish normal methods of accounting for its project costs so that overall progress can be tracked, contractor performance can be monitored and taxpayer dollars are not wasted," the committee said in its report.

Hastings said he is hopeful that "by the time any final funding bill is written, the department will provide more details about the framework cost and schedule and an agreement will be reached between DOE and the state of Washington on a final path forward."

DOE and the state are negotiating changes to deadlines and requirements for treating tank waste.

The committee report also would require DOE to provide a report by Feb. 1 on the cost and schedule of building new waste storage tanks and a report on how new tank construction would impact the schedule for building the vitrification plant. The state is calling for eight new double-shell tanks to be built.

The report will give all parties a full understanding of the risks and trade-offs of building new tanks as negotiations between the state and federal government continue, Hastings said.

The committee report also would clarify DOE's authority to switch money among accounts, which could make it more difficult for DOE to use money intended for Hanford for work at other cleanup sites.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews