The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement to extend legal deadlines for getting radioactive sludge out of the K West Basin near the Columbia River.
The agreement brings to an end a fine that had been growing at the rate of $10,000 a week since shortly after DOE missed a deadline to begin moving the sludge last September.
EPA agreed to cap the fine at $125,000 because a tentative agreement was reached about 13 weeks after the fine started accumulating.
Basins attached to Hanford’s K East and K West reactors were used to store irradiated fuel stranded when processing to remove weapons-grade plutonium stopped near the end of the Cold War.
As the fuel corroded underwater, it combined with dirt and bits of concrete from the pools to form a highly radioactive sludge. The fuel has been gone for 11 years, but the sludge remains.
The new agreement extends the deadline to start removing sludge from the K West Basin by four years to Sept. 30, 2018. The sludge must be removed under the new deadlines by the end of 2019 — also a four year extension.
A total of 10 deadlines were extended, based on the delayed start of retrieval of sludge.
In addition, a new deadline was added to keep DOE on track to start sludge retrieval. It is required to complete installation of the sludge transfer equipment at the K West Reactor by the end of September 2017.
The K Basins should be one of DOE’s highest cleanup priorities at the site, said Rick Albright, director of EPA’s Superfund cleanup program in Seattle. The fine is expected to be paid to EPA’s Superfund program.
“They need to make some real progress, rather than just explain missed deadlines, or they will face more penalties,” Albright said.
Money to buy the equipment is not expected to be available to finish installation sooner because of the federal budget cycle.
“The agreement between the Department of Energy and EPA to change milestones reflects the agencies’ commitment to moving radioactive sludge away from the Columbia River to reduce the risk to the river in the next few years,” DOE said in a statement Tuesday.
About 35 cubic yards of sludge is stored in underwater containers in the K West Basin about 400 yards from the Columbia River.
The last of the 2,300 tons of fuel was removed from the basins in 2004. Since then workers have been dealing with the radioactive sludge that remains, getting it vacuumed up and consolidated in underwater containers in the sturdier K West Basin in early 2008.
The next step is to get it out of the K West Basin, into transport containers and then moved away from the river to the T Plant in central Hanford until it can be treated for disposal.
EPA already extended deadlines for sludge removal numerous times, said a letter sent by Dennis Faulk, EPA Hanford program manager, to DOE in October. The deadline for having all the sludge out of the K West Basin originally was 2002, and that was extended 13 years, the letter said.
“I’m pretty confident they will be able to deliver this time,” Faulk said Tuesday. A mockup of the K West Basin has been built at Hanford’s Maintenance and Storage Facility near the Fast Flux Test Facility to test processes and allow workers to practice with the tools that will be used for the work.
DOE requested a deadline extension last fall, saying that insufficient money in fiscal 2013 and 2014 was to blame for the missed Sept. 30 deadline.
But EPA questioned why DOE had not proposed an extension until the deadline date, rather than when budgets were set in previous years.
“EPA has consistently made clear to DOE EPA’s expectation that sludge removal work be funded and proceed,” EPA said when the extension was denied in 2014.
Getting the sludge out of the K Basins will allow other work to be done to clean up Hanford near the Columbia River.
The K West Reactor Basin must be demolished and removed by September 2023 and soil cleanup under the basin must start shortly after that, according to the new deadlines.
By the end of September 2024, the K East and K West Reactors must be cocooned, a process that puts them in safe storage for 75 years while the radioactivity in their core decays to safer levels. Other soil cleanup in the area would need to be done by then.
The new deadlines also address treatment of the sludge for disposal, likely at a national underground repository in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
A treatment and packaging technology for the sludge would need to be selected in 2022, a deadline extension of seven years. The delay could allow some efficiencies for DOE, which could be ready to treat some other waste to be sent to New Mexico then.