DOE nominee questions building additional tanks at Hanford

Difficult decisions need to be made to prioritize Department of Energy cleanup work and meet deadlines while ensuring safety, said Monica Regalbuto, who is nominated to become the assistant DOE secretary for environmental management.

Few questions were directed at her Thursday at a hearing on her nomination by the Senate Committee on Armed Services. But she submitted written answers to policy questions to the committee, addressing topics such as how to decide which work to do during a time of tight federal budgets.

Building additional waste storage tanks at Hanford in a period of constrained federal spending will divert resources from the ultimate goal of getting Hanford waste treated for disposal, she said.

Tank AY-102, the oldest of Hanford's 28 double-shell tanks, has a leak from its inner shell. With double-shell tanks needed to hold Hanford waste for another 40 years, Washington wants to require DOE to build eight new tanks that could hold 1 million gallons each.

"The best way to address the risk associated with tank waste is to immobilize its contents as soon as possible," she said.

But she said more in-depth study of certain situations -- involving waste storage tanks and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste -- could be required.

"I expect to be very involved in this issue," she said.

She addressed the decision to start building the vitrification plant in 2002 while design work on it continued, saying that is no longer DOE policy.

DOE requires that major construction projects have 90 percent of their design completed before building begins.

"My experience shows that this is a more sustainable approach to large construction projects," she said.

She was asked in the questionnaire if she would review the firing of people considered whistleblowers at the vitrification plant.

Regalbuto said she will study any results of an investigation that the DOE Office of Inspector General has been asked to do on the firing of Donna Busche, the manager of environmental and nuclear safety at the plant.

She said she was familiar with studies looking at safety culture issues at Hanford completed by the former Office of Health, Safety and Security.

She also addressed the balance of authority between field offices, such as those at Hanford, and DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"I do believe that it is important to delegate as much authority as possible and appropriate to the field offices and their managers," she said. But that authority comes with the responsibility to meet goals and learn from the experience of other field offices.

Not every challenge that remains across the DOE complex after 25 years of environmental cleanup is one of a kind, she said.

For instance, technologies being used for tank waste at DOE's Savannah River, S.C., site should be explored for use at Hanford, she said.

In the past, DOE has focused on accelerating environmental cleanup at particular sites, such as the Rocky Flats, Colo., site.

Regalbuto said she would be willing to consider that approach, if it would accomplish cleanup in a safe and cost-effective manner.

However, given tight federal budgets, it could be difficult to balance that with competing priorities based on their risk to workers, the public and the environment, she said.

She expects DOE to continue its focus on project management, including large construction projects, efforts to improve safety culture and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, she said.

"If confirmed, I will spend significant time working on recovery efforts to reopen WIPP," she said. It has been closed since a radiological release in February.

DOE is evaluating potential impacts of the shutdown, she said. Hanford has waste contaminated with plutonium planned to be sent to WIPP, but little work toward making those shipments has been done in recent years because of limited budgets.

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