DOE, state agree on 1 of 3 Hanford lawsuit experts

An employee cuts through a piece of steel decking at the top of the Hanford vitrification plant’s High-Level Waste Facility.
An employee cuts through a piece of steel decking at the top of the Hanford vitrification plant’s High-Level Waste Facility. Bechtel National

Washington and the Department of Energy have found something they can agree on in federal court litigation over the Hanford consent decree — a joint nominee for a panel of technical advisers to assist the judge.

But they’re arguing over the other choices for the panel.

Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson is forming a panel with three experts to advise her and help her understand the technical issues in the case, with DOE and the state each allowed to propose one expert. She also asked them to collaborate to come up with a third recommendation.

The state and DOE have agreed to jointly nominate Per Peterson, a professor in the Nuclear Engineering Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

Peterson has worked for a number of DOE national laboratories, but not on Hanford matters, according to court documents. He also was chosen by former Energy Secretary Steven Chu to provide expert advice on technical issues at the Hanford vitrification plant, which he did without pay.

To complete the panel, DOE proposes Jeffrey Trent, an independent contractor providing technical and project management support to DOE at Hanford, including on the resolution of technical issues at the vitrification plant.

The state proposes Suzanne Dahl, an employee of the state Department of Ecology. But DOE argues Dahl, the state’s expert on high-level radioactive waste, cannot serve without bias. She has provided sworn testimony in the consent decree litigation, which would affect her ability to impartially tutor the court, according to the Department of Justice.

Malouf Peterson declined to dismiss Dahl based on the Department of Justice’s complaint of bias, saying she realizes the difficulties Washington has in finding qualified experts given that DOE has almost exclusive authority over Hanford and employs a substantial number of qualified candidates.

But Malouf Peterson said both DOE and the state could submit further written arguments regarding Dahl’s qualifications.

Dahl’s expertise is in overseeing and directing compliance with regulatory requirements, but panel members will need engineering or nuclear safety expertise to advise on technical issues and how their resolution would affect the design of the vitrification plant, federal attorneys said in court documents.

The state said Dahl, the section manager for the Department of Ecology’s Tank Waste Treatment Section, has been the state’s point person on vitrification plant matters for 20 years.

The state had asked that if Dahl is dismissed for bias that Trent also be dismissed because of his heavy involvement in vitrification plant issues.

Malouf Peterson declined to dismiss Trent, but she noted that DOE had said that if Dahl is accepted it might also want to name someone who has provided sworn testimony in the case. The judge said she would consider a substitution, if DOE chose.

DOE and the state are in federal court after DOE indicated it was at risk of missing most of the remaining deadlines in a 2010 consent decree that resolved a lawsuit by set new court-enforced deadlines for emptying certain underground Hanford tanks of radioactive waste and building and starting to operate the vitrification plant to treat the waste. Some construction on the vitrification plant has been stopped until technical issues that could affect its safe and efficient operation are resolved.

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