Deadlines proposed for waste shipments

A truck carrying waste heads toward the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
A truck carrying waste heads toward the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. DOE

Questions are being raised about whether Tri-Party Agency officials are proposing delaying work too long to deal with Hanford debris contaminated with plutonium.

That waste, called transuranic, was temporarily buried at Hanford after Congress said in 1970 that transuranic waste should be shipped to a national repository for disposal that had yet to be created.

Since then, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, has opened in New Mexico, but it’s been shut down since February 2014 after a truck caught fire underground and then, in an unrelated incident, a drum of waste burst and spread contamination.

A new schedule has been proposed by the Department of Energy and its regulator, the state of Washington, which would replace deadlines in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement for retrieving buried waste with a requirement that a new retrieval schedule be set in 2020.

Hanford has 20,000 boxes and drums of debris possibly contaminated with plutonium waiting to be treated and disposed of either at Hanford or New Mexico, depending on what surveys determine they contain. They include about 8,000 containers stored at Hanford’s Central Waste Complex and about 12,000 that are temporarily buried at Hanford and degrading below ground.

Shipments of any of the 20,000 containers determined to require disposal at WIPP in New Mexico would need to be completed by 2030. That’s the deadline in the Tri-Party Agreement, which is not being adjusted by dates being considered now, and it is also when the permit for WIPP to accept waste will expire if not extended.

The state of Oregon has told DOE and the state of Washington that it is concerned that too much work is being deferred until after 2020.

Oregon has so far been willing to accept delays in the transuranic waste program at Hanford because it has had higher priorities.

“In the abstract, we are willing to accept some continued delays related to Hanford’s transuranic waste,” said Ken Niles, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Energy, in a letter to agencies negotiating new deadlines. “However, we are concerned that so much work will be deferred to the 2020s that it will be impossible to achieve it all within the new time frames.”

Shipments of waste should resume from Hanford before 2020 or the 2030 deadline will not be met, Niles warned.

“It would be a mistake to assume DOE could meet an aggressive shipping schedule from Hanford over a reduced period of years, without allowing for bad weather that may impact shipping schedules, a transportation accident that could stop shipping for an extended period or another shutdown of WIPP for whatever reason,” the Oregon letter said.

The Hanford Advisory Board also is concerned, writing in a letter of advice sent to the state and DOE after its meeting last week that it urges a faster pace for retrieving temporarily buried waste and shipping it to meet the 2030 goal.

“The board believes a 10-year window — 2020 to 2030 — is not enough time to meet future designated cleanup obligations,” it said in the letter. After 2030 access to WIPP could be curtailed or terminated, it said.

Cost also could be an issue, according to the board.

In the near term the cost of dealing with the solid waste would be about $20 million from the DOE Richland Operations Office annual budget, which is about $1 billion a year, according to the state of Washington.

But in the peak year of work in the mid 2020s, the work would cost $250 million, or about a quarter of the Richland Operations Office budget if it remains steady at around $1 billion.

The issue is complicated for the Hanford Advisory Board and the state of Oregon by more Tri-Party Agreement deadlines that are being renegotiated this fall and winter.

They include deadlines for investigating and then completing cleanup of about 1,000 waste sites in central Hanford. They also include cleanup of the huge processing plants and their associated waste sites in central Hanford. Costs for that work could be in the neighborhood of $10 billion.

Without more information, the state of Oregon cannot determine whether the proposal for transuranic waste deadlines is reasonable and achievable or whether it would be done at the expense of some other project that it would rank as a higher priority, according to Niles.

“The board cannot prioritize any specific milestone without a DOE commitment to full funding and a logical rationale that prescribes the importance of one milestone over another,” the advisory board said in its letter.

The proposed new deadlines purposely focus on treating and repackaging waste that already is in above-ground storage before more waste is dug up.

Hanford regulators have issued formal findings and notices that parts at the Central Waste Complex, where 8,000 of the 20,000 containers of waste are stored, do not comply with safety and environmental standards. The regulators have also found that many of the wastes are stored without characterization and treatment which are legally required, the board letter pointed out.

As waste is dug up after 2020 under the proposed changes, it would be prepared and shipped to WIPP promptly, rather than leaving it stored for years at the Central Waste Complex .

DOE has said WIPP will not be able to resume accepting waste as previously planned by March 2016, and some Hanford Advisory Board members said it could be 2018 before the repository reopens. Other DOE sites are scheduled to resume sending their transuranic waste to WIPP before Hanford when WIPP reopens, based on a nationally coordinated schedule.

One of the additional issues faced by DOE is the lack of processing facilities for some of its Hanford transuranic waste. PermaFix Northwest, which is just off Hanford, has repackaged much of Hanford’s transuranic waste.

But it cannot handle oversize boxes of waste, waste with more radionuclides than allowed by its license and waste that is so radioactively hot that it has to be handled with remotely operated machinery.

“It is not a large quantity, but it is expensive to deal with,” said John Price, the Tri-Party Agreement section manager for the Washington Department of Ecology. “You are going to spend 25 percent of your budget to deal with just 5 percent of the waste.”

The proposed new deadlines would require DOE to study options for those difficult wastes by 2018, which could include developing capabilities onsite or offsite at commercial plants such as PermaFix.

Hanford has had few successes so far in preparing remote-handled waste for shipment and should be planning accordingly, Niles said.

“As we’ve seen with so many projects at Hanford, the difficult ones take longer and cost more than anyone anticipated, and it is imperative to build additional time and funding within the schedule to allow for those likely delays,” he said in the letter from Oregon state.

The comment period on the proposed new deadlines has been extended until Sept. 25. They may be emailed to Kristen.Skopeck@rl.doe.gov.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews