Environmental cleanup work at Hanford is 25 years behind schedule and more delays need to be avoided, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.
As Department of Energy Hanford officials prepare to finalize their requested budget for fiscal 2017, the state is recommending strategies for acquiring Hanford’s portion of the DOE environmental cleanup budget.
“Budget (is) the biggest factor affecting cleanup today,” said John Price, the state Tri-Party Agreement section manager, at a Hanford meeting last week.
He cited a 2012 DOE Office of Planning and Budget finding that estimated Hanford cleanup has fallen 25 years behind DOE’s schedule.
“That is because for about 20 years the appropriated budget has been less than needed to comply with environmental regulations,” he said.
Hanford officials need to support adequate funding not just for Hanford, but for other cleanup sites across the nation, wrote Jane Hedges, manager of the state Nuclear Waste Program, in a letter to Hanford DOE leaders.
DOE has developed a schedule for defense cleanup sites to ship their transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for disposal. Hanford’s transuranic waste — typically debris contaminated with plutonium — is scheduled to be shipped there after waste from other sites. Officials said Hanford has other work to do in the meantime.
Other sites not only need adequate money to keep to their shipment schedules and avoid delays for Hanford’s eventual shipments, but additional funds could help them ship their waste sooner, Hedges’ letter said.
Hanford has 20,000 containers of waste waiting to be treated and disposed of either at Hanford or New Mexico, depending on what surveys determine they contain. About 700 containers are in above-ground storage and already are deteriorating. Far more — 12,500 containers — are temporarily buried and degrading below ground, according to Hedges.
Washington supports increased money to get the repository operating again so Hanford waste could be disposed of sooner, ending the threat that the waste poses to human health and the environment, the letter said. The national repository in New Mexico has been shut down since a fire and spread of contamination last year.
As cleanup work is delayed at Hanford, costs to maintain infrastructure is increasing, according to the state.
“Ecology is concerned about such repairs and replacements reducing funds for managing wastes,” Hedges said.
Aging water lines in central Hanford already have multiple leaks of hundreds of thousands of gallons per year, which can potentially move contamination from past weapons plutonium production at Hanford downward into groundwater.
Three aging plants used to chemically process irradiated fuel to remove plutonium will need to have roofs replaced to keep precipitation from infiltrating into the highly contaminated facilities, Hedges said. The REDOX, PUREX and B Plant have no scheduled demolition date.
Delaying cleanup also increases costs as the cleanup becomes more difficult, Hedges said in the letter.
Much of the environmental cleanup along the Columbia River at Hanford is nearly complete. But central Hanford still has 1,000 buildings or facilities standing, including 400 that are contaminated with radioactive material or hazardous chemicals.
Central Hanford also has about 1,000 sites where soil is contaminated, including ditches filled with clean soil to prevent contamination from being spread by the wind or other means.
“There are an increasing number of incidents of plants and animals intruding into buildings and soil waste sites, like the ditches,” according to Hedges. Spreading contamination creates larger areas that must be cleaned up and more waste that must be eliminated.
“Ecology encourages U.S. DOE to identify scheduling and budgeting approaches that would clean up some waste sites and facilities earlier that currently planned,” Hedges said.
During the last 25 years Hanford, workers have demonstrated they can perform high-hazard work and do it safely, Price said. But it is DOE’s responsibility to invest in worker protection, such as managing chemical vapors at the tank farms were 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste is stored.
“Ecology agrees that protecting workers to ensure a safe cleanup should be the highest priority for the Hanford budget,” Hedges said.