Washington and the Department of Energy have turned to federal court to set new deadlines and requirements in the 2010 court-enforced consent decree for Hanford.
Both filed motions Friday evening asking the court to intervene after they failed to reach an agreement by this weekend’s deadline.
“While the department and the State of Washington share the common objective of completing a successful tank waste cleanup mission at Hanford, we are disappointed that the parties could not agree on a reasonable, achievable path forward,” DOE said in a statement.Gov. Jay Inslee appreciates the high priority that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has placed on Hanford environmental cleanup, he said.
But “the simple fact is the Department of Energy has failed to meet important deadlines,” Inslee said. “We need much stronger accountability.”
DOE earlier told the state it would miss all the remaining deadlines for building and starting up the Hanford vitrification plant, which will treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of weapons plutonium. Those deadlines included having the plant at full operation in 2022.
The state and DOE propose that some waste be treated starting in 2022. But all parts of the plant might not be operating until 2031.
DOE also only partially met deadlines for emptying an initial group of leak-prone single shell tanks under the 2010 consent decree. Only 13 of the 16 tanks in the C Tank Farm were emptied by the end of September deadline.
“It is critical that this not languish in the courts and that an achievable, realistic, fundable plan is finalized,” Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said Friday. “As decisions are made, long-awaited details about costs, schedules and trade-offs must be clearly and fully explained.”
A decision by the court is not likely for four months, at the earliest.
A proposed briefing schedule filed in federal court requested that the state and federal government have until Jan. 16 to file legal briefs, with arguments in court possibly the week of Jan. 26.
It also indicated that the state of Oregon will file a brief in the case in support of Washington.
Cleanup focus a concern
“We hope there is an expeditious resolution of this matter,” said Mark Whitney, DOE acting environmental management assistant secretary, in a blog post Friday evening. “In the near term, the department will continue to move forward to begin treating tank waste at Hanford.”
The Tri-Cities community will feel the greatest impact from giving the matter to the courts to decide, said Gary Petersen, vice president of
Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council.
The court’s singular focus will be on the tanks and vitrification plant, Petersen said. But there are other risks at Hanford that need to be addressed, including the radioactive sludge held in the K West Basin not far from the Columbia River.
If the court requires more money to be spent on projects at the tank farms and the vitrification plant, the rest of Hanford environmental cleanup could suffer, Petersen said.
“Any agreement and resulting budget requests must not only consider new commitments (at the tank farms and vit plant) but also existing legal obligations at all Hanford projects,” Hastings said. “I’m hopeful that all parties will focus on activities that actually accomplish cleanup rather than stop-gap measures that could keep tank waste at Hanford longer and slow work elsewhere.”
Important work has continued at Hanford during negotiations, and DOE will not lose its focus on making steady progress on work in addition to that involving tank waste, said David Huizenga, formerly the nation’s top DOE environmental management official.
Although Huizenga has moved to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the energy secretary requested he continue leading consent decree negotiations.
State wants 100-plus deadlines
The state is proposing a much-expanded list of 100 new deadlines and other requirements to prevent future delays and make sure DOE continues progress toward meeting the long-term legal schedule for emptying tanks and treating waste.
“We must have specificity, accountability and enforceability for the federal cleanup,” said Bob Ferguson, Washington attorney general.
The deadlines would help ensure all parts of the vit plant are operating by a new proposed deadline of 2031, with additional treatment capacity on line the next year. Treatment of some waste — low-activity waste — would be required to start in 2022.
Because of the delays in treating waste, the state wants eight new double-shell tanks built to securely store 8 million gallons by 2024.
That proposal concerns TRIDEC, which has said it could cost $800 million and would take money away from other cleanup projects.
The additional tanks are needed to give Hanford more storage for waste emptied from single-shell tanks on the state’s proposed new schedule, the state said. It wants the court to require DOE to have 50 percent of the waste out of single-shell tanks by 2031.
It also wants the court to set additional requirements for DOE to file reports and make notifications to the court.
“The need for further accountability measures is shown by the manner in which Energy’s (vitrification plant) project came off the rails within 13 months of the consent decree’s entry,” the state said in a court document. “Energy provided no clue of the magnitude of pending schedule issues in its reporting under the 2010 decree.”
DOE wants certainty
DOE is asking the court to take an approach almost opposite to that requested by the state.
It asks the court to set near-term deadlines, but to wait to set longer-term deadlines until technical issues are resolved to give confidence deadlines can be met.
Until technical issues are worked through, DOE will not be able to prepare a new cost and schedule for the project, the agency has said.
DOE’s proposal to the court provides an achievable and realistic path to meet the goals of the consent decree, Huizenga said.
The filing largely parallels the proposed amendment of the consent decree DOE released at the end of March.
The new DOE court filing calls for the vitrification plant to begin operating in phases, with low-activity radioactive waste treated at the plant in 2022. That would allow DOE to make progress in treating waste for disposal as soon as possible and also would free up space in double-shell tanks needed to hold the waste emptied from single-shell tanks until it can be treated.
In the meantime, DOE would continue to work through technical issues on treating high-level radioactive waste, Huizenga said.
DOE is committed to building a facility to blend, sample and stage waste to make sure the vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility receives a feed of uniform waste and can reliably treat it, he said. That would address some of the technical issues and other issues would be addressed with more testing, including full-scale testing of systems to keep waste mixed in tanks in the vit plant.
DOE also proposes that the court revise deadlines for the C Tank Farm, giving DOE until the end of 2015 to empty two of the tanks. How to proceed with the third tank remains uncertain because it may have leaked in the past, and a first-of-a-kind vacuum system is removing waste extremely slowly. A deadline would be set when DOE has selected a technology to empty the third tank.
DOE would still be required to have 19 single-shell tanks emptied by 2022, but the schedule would be revised to allow DOE to proceed more efficiently by installing all infrastructure before waste retrieval begins.
Hastings called for the state and DOE to continue to discuss proposals with the Tri-Cities community and Congress so that everyone has a full understanding of what any final agreement would mean for not just the tank farms and vitrification plant, but also the rest of Hanford and other DOE cleanup sites.
“Cleanup decisions of this magnitude should not solely be made by lawyers behind closed doors with details provided to the public only after it is too late to provide input,” he said.
Because the matter is going to federal court, both sides should use this as a fresh opportunity for renewed focus on their shared goals for Hanford cleanup, he said.
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HanfordNews