Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., will block the nomination for a Department of Energy assistant secretary in charge of nuclear cleanup at Hanford and elsewhere unless DOE addresses whistleblower and vitrification plant issues, he said Tuesday.
DOE has not had an assistant secretary for environmental management since Ines Triay left the position about four years ago.
Monica Regalbuto was nominated to fill the position during the last Congress but the Senate failed to act.
She moved from her position in the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to a cleanup position — the DOE associate principal deputy assistant secretary for environmental management — last year and was nominated again this year to lead cleanup work.
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“It is time for the culture of hostility against the whistleblowers at Hanford to end,” Wyden said at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing to consider DOE nominations.
“Until I see corrective action — concrete action — from the Department of Energy to address both the whistleblower issue and the treatment of radioactive waste, I am going to be objecting to the Senate proceeding to the nomination of Dr. Regalbuto,” he said.
Regalbuto, a chemical engineer, is highly qualified to lead environmental cleanup for DOE, he said.
His threat to block her appointment is not a judgment of her qualifications “but rather an insistence that needed changes at Hanford cannot be put off any longer,” he said.
Wyden has championed two managers who lost their jobs at the vitrification plant in recent years after raising questions about the future safe operation of the plant. The DOE contractor and subcontractor on the project have strongly denied that was the reason both lost their jobs on the project.
In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found in 2014 that three Hanford workers had been improperly laid off after raising issues. An environmental specialist at the Hanford tank farms had repeatedly raised potential nuclear and environmental safety issues.
Information technology workers for the former occupational medicine services providers had reported that medical restrictions were not being accurately tracked.
A DOE assessment a year ago found that only 30 percent of DOE employees at Hanford overseeing work at the tank farms and vitrification plant felt they could challenge a management decision, Wyden said.
Every DOE and contractor worker should feel free to raise concerns, Regalbuto said.
“The whistleblower program is what keeps us honest,” she said.
Wyden criticized the slow pace of work to get up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks treated at the vitrification plant for disposal.
A May Government Accountability Office report pointed out that $19 billion has been spent in 25 years at the Hanford tank farms and on different waste treatment strategies with no waste treated to date.
“This has become what amounts to the longest running battle since the Trojan War,” Wyden says. “Money just evaporates.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking member of the committee, questioned Regalbuto about using natural gas at the vitrification plant, protecting workers from tank vapors and cleaning up the highly radioactive spill under a building just north of Richland.
“We will switch to natural gas,” Regalbuto said in response to questions about a delay in completing an environmental study of switching from diesel to natural gas to fuel steam boilers at the vitrification plant.
DOE recognizes the benefits to the environment to making the change, she said. Switching to natural gas delivered by a pipeline that would run under the Columbia River between Franklin County and Hanford would eliminate the need for 42 truckloads of diesel to be delivered to Hanford each week and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1 million tons, supporters have said.
Work on the environmental study to make the switch has been halted with the vitrification plant not expected to start operating until 2022 at the earliest.
Regalbuto said lighter protective equipment was being considered for workers who have been required to use supplied-air respirators at the Hanford tank farms to avoid exposure to chemical vapors from waste stored there.
The improved equipment would allow employees to work more efficiently but the change will only be made if it is shown to be safe, Regalbuto said.
Cantwell pressed Regalbuto for commitments on cleaning up the highly radioactive contamination under Hanford’s 324 Building, which is near both Richland and the Columbia River.
By fall 2016 the design to excavate the soil beneath the building will be completed, she said. The building over the contamination keeps it from moving quickly in the soil, she said. But once cleanup work starts and it is disturbed, DOE will need to keep a close eye on it, she said.
She agreed to provide Cantwell with more information on how the contamination would be treated. Cantwell described Regalbuto as extremely qualified to lead environmental cleanup for DOE.
In her current position she applies her technical expertise to advance cleanup. Previously she directed a research and development program for nuclear fuel cycle technologies that included 400 scientists and 300 professors at 10 national laboratories and 32 universities.
Now environmental cleanup is led by Mark Whitney, the DOE acting assistant secretary for environmental management.