Hanford Challenge is calling for a halt to work on the Hanford vitrification plant after the Department of Energy proposed a new court-enforced deadline that would not require all parts of the plant to be operating simultaneously until 2039.
The deadline agreed to five years ago for full operation of the plant was in 2022, making DOE’s proposal a 17-year delay. The state of Washington, the regulator on the project, has proposed a new deadline of September 2034.
“Hanford Challenge wants Hanford’s highly radioactive tank waste immobilized in glass, but this path is not going to get us there,” said Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge executive director, in a statement.
Hanford Challenge is a Seattle-based watchdog group.
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2039 proposed deadline for full operation of all vit plant facilities
The vitrification plant is being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium at the Hanford nuclear reservation for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
Hanford Challenge wants DOE to be immediately start building 12 new storage tanks to add to the 27 usable double-shell tanks that now hold some of Hanford’s waste waiting for vitrification. The waste is being emptied from leak-prone single-shell tanks into the sturdier double-shell tanks until it can be treated for disposal.
An independent organization should be established to design a new path forward for treating the waste and to determine if the vitrification plant can be salvaged, Hanford Challenge said.
The vitrification plant “has seen nothing but delay and more delay,” Carpenter said. “By 2039 much of the plant equipment will be obsolete, equipment and pipes corroded and unreliable. It will be a safety nightmare.”
2022 year that DOE says the plant may start to treat some waste
DOE already has spent $19 billion toward projects to treat the waste held in underground tanks, he said, quoting a Government Accountability Office report. There have been seven previous projects attempted since 1989, including a proposed $4.6 billion pilot plant, before work started on the current vitrification plant project.
DOE has resisted calls to build more tanks, saying they would cost $85 million to $125 million each. Money would be better spent on emptying leak-prone tanks and working toward treatment of the waste, it has said.
“DOE remains committed to the successful completion and operation of the (vitrification plant) as a method for processing tank waste stored in underground tanks at Hanford, thereby reducing risks to the environment,” DOE said in a statement Monday.
It pointed out that it is working toward a sequenced approach to completing the plant, with some low-activity radioactive waste vitrified as soon as 2022. That would have the added benefit of freeing up double-shell tank space to allow more single-shell tanks to be emptied, it said.
Starting treatment of low-activity waste as soon as possible, while continuing to work on resolution of technical issues related to high level radioactive waste, would be the “appropriate, practical and safest solution,” DOE said. It has committed significant resources to work toward that approach, it added.