The Department of Energy will be required to build new storage tanks for high-level radioactive waste at Hanford if it does not meet certain deadlines, according to a new federal court ruling.
The wide-ranging order issued by Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson contains wins and losses for both the Department of Energy and the state of Washington on their proposals for new court-enforced deadlines for Hanford cleanup.
Malouf Peterson ruled DOE would not be required to build two new facilities at the Hanford tank farms that could allow the Hanford vitrification plant to begin treating certain wastes while unresolved technical issues delay full operation of the vitrification plant.
But she also said — as expected after comments she made during a July 23 hearing in the Richland federal courthouse — that DOE must be held accountable to firm deadlines. DOE had proposed waiting to set deadlines until it is certain technical issues can be resolved and the deadlines can be met.
The 2010 consent decree resolved a lawsuit brought by the state over missed deadlines at the Hanford nuclear reservation by setting a new set of deadlines and requirements. The consent decree is back in court after DOE said most remaining deadlines are at serious risk for emptying 19 leak-prone tanks and constructing and starting operations of the vitrification plant to treat up to 56 million gallons of waste.
Following the judge’s ruling this week, DOE and the state are required to submit revised proposals for amending the consent decree.
New tank requirements
Malouf Peterson stopped short this week of requiring DOE to build four more double-shell tanks by 2022, with up to eight more required after that, as proposed by the state.
Instead, she will hear arguments from the state and DOE about what missed requirements at the Hanford tank farms would trigger the mandatory construction of one or more additional storage tanks.
The state has argued that there is not enough space remaining in DOE’s usable 27 double-shell tanks to hold waste from all 19 of the leak-prone single-shell tanks the consent decree requires to be emptied by 2022. Waste will be stored in double-shell tanks until the vitrification plant is operating to treat the waste.
DOE has asked that the deadline to empty the 19 tanks be extended by one year. But it said some past delays and a technical issue are behind the extension request, not lack of space in double-shell tanks.
It has argued against building more double-shell tanks, saying that is outside the scope of the consent decree and would be extremely expensive. DOE has estimated each tank could cost $85 million to $150 million and could take money away from other projects at Hanford or other DOE nuclear cleanup sites.
It plans to free up space in its 27 double-shell tanks by using the Hanford evaporation plant to reduce the liquid portion of waste held in double-shell tanks, giving it 2.42 million gallons of space to spare.
The state has countered that the aging evaporation plant, called the 242-A Evaporator, cannot be reliably operated to reduce enough of the liquid volume of waste. Double tank space was nearing capacity before a 28th double-shell tank developed a leak contained between its shells. It is being taken out of service.
DOE says increased operation of the evaporator plant is planned over the coming years, but the schedule is well within the facility’s capabilities. Upgrades and improvements to the plant between 2010 and 2014 have ensured that it is mechanically sound.
Since then the evaporator has been operated for three campaigns, removing nearly 1.6 million gallons of excess liquid.
If the evaporation runs lag, causing further delays in emptying tanks, the court will modify the consent decree to require DOE to begin building one or more tanks, Malouf Peterson said in a court order.
The amount of tank space DOE must free up through evaporation campaigns and the schedule that will trigger the requirement for new tanks will be set after the state and federal government submit more information to the court, she said.
New pretreatment facilities
Requiring new pretreatment facilities outside the vitrification plant goes beyond the bounds of the issues covered in the 2010 consent decree and will not be added to it now, the judge said.
Both the state and DOE had proposed that a new facility be required to be built to separate low-activity radioactive waste from tank waste to allow it to be sent directly to the vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility to be glassified as early as 2022.
The vitrification plant’s Pretreatment Facility has been planned to separate waste coming into the plant into low-activity and high-level radioactive waste streams for treatment at separate facilities at the plant. Technical issues at the Pretreatment Facility have halted construction there and it is not expected to be operating to prepare waste for treatment by 2022.
DOE and the state had seen the new facility as a way to mitigate delays in starting full operation of the vitrification plant by allowing some waste to be prepared to be sent for treatment to the Low Activity Waste Facility.
Malouf Peterson found that did not meet the consent decree requirement to turn certain amounts of high-level and low-activity radioactive waste into a stable glass form over a rolling three month period at the vitrification plant in 2022.
Getting some waste treated would further the goals of the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement, the main document governing Hanford cleanup, but the Tri-Party Agreement falls outside the narrower scope of the consent decree, the judge said.
She also said altering the fundamental nature of the treatment plant in litigation would not be fair to Hanford’s other regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency, which is not a party to the lawsuit.
Her refusal to add the new pretreatment facility for low-activity waste to the consent decree does not prohibit the state and DOE from reaching an agreement outside the court to proceed with the facility, she said.
Her rejection of a proposal for a second new pretreatment facility that would mix and condition high-level radioactive waste was made on similar grounds that it was not covered by the consent decree.
The state had proposed the second new facility be included in the consent decree, but DOE, while pursuing plans for the facility, said not enough was known yet to include the possible new facility in the consent decree.
DOE agreed to enforceable deadlines when it signed the consent decree in 2010 and predetermined, enforceable deadlines will remain an essential part of the consent decree, the judge said.
“Eliminating predetermined and enforceable deadlines from the consent decree would create a vacuum in which DOE would be free to proceed at its own rate without any safeguards for Washington or enforcement by the court,” Malouf Peterson said in her court order.
DOE’s assurances that it will perform its cleanup work without such deadlines “lacks credibility given the current state of DOE’s lack of compliance with the current consent decree schedule,” she said.
The judge will add further requirements to hold DOE accountable, she said. The agency will be required to issue more reports on its progress toward meeting deadlines and to explain why it may not meet deadlines and how it is remedying delays.
The details and frequency of the additional reports will be determined later, she said.
The additional reporting requirements will not include a state proposal that DOE submit reports to the state about the funding it needs from Congress, she said. Washington does not have the power to change DOE’s budget requests or obtain money from Congress.
DOE and state nominations for an expert panel to advise Malouf Peterson in technical issues were due this week.
She has granted an extension after the state and DOE asked for clarification, including whether state and federal employees could serve on the panel and how much of experts’ time would be required.
They also asked that guidelines be set to clearly define and limit the advisers’ duties, to address allegations of lack of qualification or bias, and to otherwise ensure a far process.