The Department of Energy and its Hanford regulators are proposing new legal deadlines for much of the environmental cleanup work in central Hanford after focusing spending on cleanup closer to the Columbia River in recent years.
“Now we are in a situation that we have milestones that can’t be met,” said Emerald Laija, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist.
Proposed new deadlines, some pushing out deadlines by almost a decade or delaying requirements to set deadlines until more information will be available, will be discussed at a public meeting Nov. 4 in the Tri-Cities and at meetings later this month in Seattle, Portland and Hood River.
During the past 26 years, the more than 450 changes have been made to the Tri-Party Agreement, which sets legal deadlines for Hanford cleanup. But the package of changes proposed now is among the 10 most significant packages of changes proposed in the document’s history, said John Price, the Tri-Party Agreement section manager for the Department of Ecology.
The Washington State Department of Ecology has known for a couple of years that central Hanford deadlines could not be met, Price said. The proposed changes cover 64 milestones and a broad scope of work.
The state and EPA have been working with DOE as it develops preliminary plans to do the work based on the study of contaminated areas so the agencies. That effort will be used to realistically determine how much additional time will be needed, including for more complete studies.
The agencies also have been discussing how much work could be completed under Hanford annual budgets that are not expected to increase significantly and how to keep work on a steady pace to prevent cycles of layoffs of experienced workers followed by retraining new workers.
This is a realistic, achievable plan at a slightly higher budget level than they (DOE) are getting today.
John Price, Washington State Department of Ecology
“This is a realistic, achievable plan at a slightly higher budget level than they (DOE) are getting today,” Price said. Along with other work assigned to the DOE Richland Operations Office, it would require annual budgets of about $1.2 billion rather than typical current budgets approaching $1 billion.
The proposed new deadlines would cover much of the remaining cleanup work in central Hanford, other than work related to Hanford’s tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. It also would cover some key work yet to be finished near the Columbia River — excavation of the high-hazard 618-11 Burial Ground and cleanup of the highly radioactive spill beneath the 324 Building just north of Richland.
They would mesh with other new deadlines for retrieving temporarily buried waste in central Hanford that may be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a national waste repository in New Mexico, and for removing radioactive sludge from the K West Basin and treating it for disposal.
As the DOE worked to get most of the Haford cleanup along the Columbia River completed by this year, the approach included a bias for action, Price said. Contaminated soil and waste was dug up and then sampled because of the risk to the river.
But for central Hanford, a more deliberate approach is being proposed. More investigation of contamination is being done before cleanup, Price said.
300 depth in feet down to central Hanford groundwater in some places
The contamination could be much deeper underground. Near the Columbia River, some contaminated soil was excavated down to groundwater at 85 feet deep and then a little lower. But in central Hanford, contamination may stretch 300 feet down to groundwater.
The central Hanford waste and contamination would have come from chemical processing of radioactive material rather than largely from reactor operations along the Columbia River, and levels of contamination may be greater. In central Hanford, irradiated fuel and sometimes other material was processed to remove plutonium or other potentially useful material.
The first group of new deadlines is for completing the investigation of contamination and feasibility studies of methods for cleanup up of key central Hanford areas, with some exceptions that include cleanup related to the underground waste storage tanks and the five large processing facilities, called canyons.
The investigations would include all of the 200 East and West Areas, 43 miles of unlined trenches used to dispose of contaminated debris and soil contamination deep in the ground.
The Central Plateau is very complicated, so an investigation can take several years.
John Price, Washington State Department of Ecology
“The Central Plateau is very complicated, so an investigation can take several years,” Price said.
Multiple deadlines would be extended or added for the studies. But the final date for completion of the investigations and feasibility studies would be extended from the end of 2016 to June 2026.
A second set of deadlines would cover the actual cleanup work covered by the investigation and feasibility studies. Now the deadline is fall 2024. But the new deadlines would be set depending on what decisions were made by 2026, based on the feasibility studies.
A third set of deadlines would cover cleanup deadlines for three of five of Hanford’s processing canyons. Work plans for the PUREX, REDOX and B Plant canyon facilities and waste sites would be required to be submitted by June 2026, an extension from fall 2022.
Because the canyon facilities are comparatively stable, their cleanup is a lower priority than some other central Hanford cleanup, Price said.
The deadlines do not include the other two canyons because decisions have been made and cleanup work has started on Hanford’s U Plant and T Plant is being used for some work with radioactive materials.
Another set of deadlines would cover the 618-11 Burial Ground, which contains highly hazardous waste from defense production of plutonium but is by the Columbia Generating Station, a commercial nuclear power reactor on leased Hanford land. The set of deadlines also would cover a spill of cesium and strontium under the 324 Building and removal of the building when it is no longer needed to serve as a protective barrier over the spill.
Cleanup of those two sites would be required to be completed in fall 2021, an extension of three years.
“The Department of Ecology is very interested to hear what the public thinks and we encourage people to come out and talk to us” at hearings, Price said.
Written comments also may be submitted until Dec. 11. Email Kristen.Skopeck@rl.doe.gov or mail Kristen Skopeck, DOE Richland Operations Office, P.O. Box 550 MSIN A7-75, Richland, WA 99352.
▪ What: Tri-Cities meeting on new Hanford deadlines
▪ When: From 5:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 4
▪ Where: Red Lion, 802 George Washington Way, Richland
▪ Watch online: 1.usa.gov/20lWkrz
▪ Other meetings: Nov. 17 in Seattle; Nov. 18 in Portland; Nov. 19 in Hood River