The Department of Energy appears to plan to significantly underfund Hanford cleanup in budgets being set now, said the Hanford Advisory Board in a letter of advice to DOE and regulators.
The board discussed the proposed annual budgets for the next two years for the Hanford nuclear reservation at its meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Richland, reaching consensus on what it would like to see funded as representatives of a broad range of constituencies, including local government, the tribes, the public, the work force, environmental groups and local business.
The board acknowledged that after years of budgets failing to provide enough money to meet environmental cleanup requirements at Hanford, it is almost impossible to develop budgets for fiscal 2016 and 2017 that meet them now.
“Current budgets fall far short of meeting those agreements (between DOE and the state of Washington) and place both the environment and public safety at ever increasing risk,” the board said in its letter.
DOE said when it opened public discussion on the fiscal 2017 budget in late April that the budget would need to double from its present level to meet environmental cleanup requirements.
DOE has released little detail on half of the fiscal 2017 budget for Hanford, covering the work to manage the tank farms where 56 million gallons of radioactive waste are held in underground tanks and the vitrification plant under construction to treat the waste for disposal.
The plans and deadlines for that work are being discussed in federal court, as DOE has been unable to meet deadlines set in a 2010 court-enforced consent decree.
The court process excludes public input or review and may result in funding decisions that vary widely from advisory board and public priorities, the board said.
It seems reasonable to expect that the Hanford budgets will change significantly after a new court order is issued, the board said.
The board is concerned that the fiscal 2017 budget proposal, which had limited information shared publicly, does not appear to include money to retrieve waste from two problematic tanks.
One of 28 newer double-shell tanks, Tank AY-102, has waste leaking between its shells, and Tank T-111, one of 149 older single-shell tanks, is leaking waste into the ground.
The board also is pressing for new tanks to be built to securely hold waste because of delays in getting the waste treated for disposal. The plan is to turn much, if not all, of it into a stable glass form at the vitrification plant. The soonest it might start treating any of the waste is 2022.
Elsewhere at Hanford, the board is concerned about a loss of momentum to finish up some of the remaining and challenging cleanup work along the Columbia River.
Money for the 324 Building cleanup needs to be given a higher priority in fiscal 2016, the board agreed. For work other than at the tank farms and vitrification plant, DOE listed projects by priority to show which ones it would proceed with depending on how much money was available.
Contamination in the soil after a leak decades ago from the building is so radioactive that it would be fatal within minutes of human contact. The contamination appears to be fairly stable now. The building acts as a shield from its radiation and prevents precipitation from reaching it.
But the water lines supporting the building’s aged fire suppression system have a history of failing and water could cause contamination to migrate toward the river if another failure were to go undetected, the board said.
For years the board has followed the development of plans to clean up the waste, including containers of liquid radioactive waste, dumped down pipes buried vertically in the ground in the 618-10 Burial Ground north of Richland.
The board is encouraged that casings have been driven into the ground around the pipes and that trained crews are waiting for direction from DOE to start retrieving the waste with less than a year and a half remaining under Washington Closure Hanford’s extended contract.
“If the crews are not given the direction to proceed, they will be disbanded,” the board said. “All of the money spent to plan the work and train the workers will be wasted.”
Once the 618-10 Burial Ground is cleaned up, work should start on the similar 618-11 Burial Ground near Energy Northwest’s commercial nuclear power plant on leased Hanford land, the board said.
“We should move crews from one to another right on top of each other,” said board member Shelley Cimon. “We have the trained workforce.”
Having the 324 Building and the 618-10 and -11 burial grounds cleaned up by a legal deadline in 2018 is not possible, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, a Hanford regulator.
Cleanup of the 618-11 Burial Ground could be finished anytime between 2020 to 2047 under current information from DOE, he said. He encouraged the board to include its wishes on the 618-11 Burial Ground in its letter of advice if it wanted the work done sooner rather than later.
The board asked that money be available to remove cesium and strontium capsules now held underwater in a central Hanford pool as soon as possible. The capsules account for a third of the radioactivity at Hanford.
“In the event of a major earthquake, which is now recognized as possible, these wastes could be exposed to air causing a massive radiation release,” the board said.
The board also made a pitch for adequate funding for its own meetings and other public meetings.
The board might have to reduce its number of all-member meetings from five to four under the proposed fiscal 2016 budget. It already has stopped holding meetings outside the Tri-Cities because of continued budget reductions, it said.
Decreasing the board’s budget works against DOE’s stated goal to increase transparency and receive public opinion, the board said.
The board also wants DOE to resume annual State of the Site meetings that allow the public to ask questions of senior managers of DOE and its regulators and provide input on priorities and public concerns.
The fiscal 2017 budget recommendations remain open for public comment through June 15. A link to more information is posted on the rotating banner at www.hanford.gov. Comments may be emailed to 2017HanfordBudget@rl.gov or mailed to U.S. Department of Energy; Attn: 2017 Budget; P.O. Box 550, A7-75; Richland, WA 99352.