Mid-Columbia governments blast Hanford nuclear cleanup risk report

Workers dug up contaminated soil 85 feet deep near Hanford’s former C Reactor to remove chromium contamination. The dig sites were so deep that mining engineers helped plan the tiered sides of the holes with safety benches about every 20 feet and roads to the bottom.
Workers dug up contaminated soil 85 feet deep near Hanford’s former C Reactor to remove chromium contamination. The dig sites were so deep that mining engineers helped plan the tiered sides of the holes with safety benches about every 20 feet and roads to the bottom. DOE

Government agencies near Hanford do not like a new report advising congressional funding leaders on risk-based environmental cleanup at Department of Energy sites any more than Washington and Oregon state leaders do.

The report, by the Omnibus Risk Review Committee, was ordered in language accompanying the current DOE spending bill to analyze how effectively DOE considers and addresses risk at sites across the nation.

Instead, it appears to be based on cutting costs across national DOE cleanup sites and proposes cutting state and local input on cleanup decisions, critics have said.

“The history of what the federal government has done to contaminate our natural resources and our vision for the future of our region should be the basis of the analysis,” said a letter from Hanford Communities, a coalition of local governments near Hanford.

The coalition includes Richland, Kennewick, Pasco, Benton and Franklin counties, and the Port of Benton.

“We are offended by a wholesale effort to homogenize the cleanup approach at very different (environmental management) sites across the country,” said the letter, sent to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on Energy and Water Development.

The Energy Communities Alliance, which represents local governments near DOE cleanup sites across the nation, has similar concerns.

Decisions on cleanup “are not academic exercises in our communities,” said the alliance’s letter to the same congressional leaders. “Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations do not address the role of communities in defining risk and instead marginalize locally elected government officials and communities affected by DOE.”

The report ignores federal law requiring DOE to work with state and local governments, the alliance said.

Hanford Communities agreed with comments made by the states of Oregon and Washington about Hanford cleanup in the report. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sent initial letters disagreeing with the report, and the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Oregon State Department of Energy followed up with more details.

The report criticized excavation of chromium-contaminated soil 85 feet deep to groundwater at Hanford. Once contamination enters the groundwater it flows underground toward the nearby Columbia River.

“The decision for remediation was driven by the cost effectiveness of the action when compared to the cost of contaminating a key drinking water and subsistence source for a large swath of the Pacific Northwest,” the states’ letter said.

By removing the source of the contamination to the groundwater, groundwater treatment plants will finish work several decades sooner, the states said. Salmon, which are particularly vulnerable to chromium, will be protected.

Hanford Communities criticized the report’s look at waste held in tanks at different sites, including the 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste left from chemical processing of irradiated uranium fuel at Hanford to remove plutonium for weapons use.

The states said the report to Congress wrongly compares the challenges of treating Hanford tank waste with tank waste at Savannah River, S.C., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Waste in almost every Hanford tank “is unique, requiring a vastly more complex vitrification process than is necessary at other sites,” the states’ letter said.

Hanford also has far more tank waste than other DOE sites, requiring larger treatment facilities.

The report “greatly underestimates the challenges of Hanford’s tank waste cleanup program,” the states said.

Studies clearly show that treating Hanford tank waste with grout and steam reforming rather than vitrification, as suggested in the report, will not work for Hanford waste, Hanford Communities said.

Hanford Communities also is concerned about statements in the risk report that could disrupt continuity of cleanup. The report questioned why Hanford should receive consistently large budgets year after year.

Hanford cleanup is hazardous and requires a workforce with unique scientific and technical training and a focus on safety, Hanford Communities said.

“If funding is not consistent and stable, the workforce fluctuates,” Hanford Communities said. “If a trained worker is laid off, all of their training departs with them. The next hire could be in training for months before even getting into the field.”

Hanford Communities did found parts of the risk report it likes.

The group supports a change in the legal definition of high-level radioactive waste, which now is based on where the waste came from rather than the hazard it poses.

Hanford Communities also supports more flexibility for DOE site managers to adjust to emerging issues at their sites.

Infrastructure at sites such as Hanford is being used well past the time it is designed to last, the report said.. Hanford Communities agreed, pointing out that Hanford cleanup could continue for another 50 years. But it disagreed with the report’s proposal for an engineering study of infrastructure, saying that what is needed is priority for infrastructure in funding decisions.

The states also agreed with some parts of the report, including more spending flexibility for site managers and giving the Environmental Protection Agency a role in formulating the administration’s budget proposal for environmental cleanup. They also agree that a strong engineering capability should be built into the DOE cleanup organization.

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