Obama administration proposes Hanford budget cut next year

Rebar flooring is installed at the top of the Hanford vitrification plant’s High Level Waste Facility on a foggy day.
Rebar flooring is installed at the top of the Hanford vitrification plant’s High Level Waste Facility on a foggy day. Bechtel National

The Obama administration is proposing spending less money on Hanford cleanup next year.

The White House sent Congress its federal budget request for fiscal 2017 on Tuesday, calling for an overall decrease in money spent nationwide for cleanup of defense sites like Hanford.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the proposed Hanford budget “inadequate” and “shortsighted.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., wants funding to remain at least at current levels, according to her staff.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., also was critical of the proposal.

“The administration’s proposed FY 2017 budget cut for Hanford funding, and specifically the Richland Operations Office, would result in cleanup delays, increased total project costs and missed legal milestones within the River Corridor,” Newhouse said.

There was some disagreement about how deep the cuts at Hanford would be under the budget proposal. Murray’s office used documents from the White House to come up with a figure of $287 million, almost all of it for the Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office projects.

The Office of River Protection is responsible for underground tanks holding waste from the past production of weapons plutonium and the vitrification plant being built to treat the waste.

The Richland Operations Office is responsible for all other work, including cleanup of groundwater, digging up waste sites, decommissioning and demolishing contaminated buildings, and site-wide services.

Monica Regalbuto, the DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, said during a conference call that the proposed budget for the Richland Operations Office would drop by $190 million from spending this year, but the budget for the Office of River Protection would increase by $86 million.

Under that scenario, the Richland Operations Office would receive $800 million.

That would be enough to finish demolishing the Plutonium Finishing Plant and place a cap over the slab that would be left on the ground. Planning would begin to look at options to move nearly 2,000 radioactive cesium and strontium capsules stored underwater in central Hanford into dry storage.

Work would continue at the high-hazard 618-10 Burial Ground just north of Richland, and preparations would be made toward cleaning up the highly radioactive spill beneath the 324 Building just north of Richland near the Columbia River.

The Tri-Cities area community wants actual cleanup of the spilled waste to proceed, not just preparations, said Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs for the Tri-City Development Council.

Federal documents said cuts are proposed for the Richland Operations Office because of work that would be completed by then, including equipment purchases for removing and repackaging radioactive sludge from the K West Basin and completion of other cleanup along the Columbia River.

However, the long-term plan for Hanford cleanup has been to shift cleanup focus to contaminated areas in central Hanford as cleanup along the Columbia River is completed.

At the Office of River Protection, the proposed budget would be almost $1.5 billion, Regalbuto said.

Money for the vitrification plant would remain close to current spending at $693 million under the proposal. Money for the tank farms would jump from $724 million to $807 million. Within the tank farm budget, $73 million would be spent on a pretreatment facility with limited capabilities for low-activity radioactive waste.

The spending will advance plans for the vitrification plant to treat low-activity waste as early as 2022, long before full operation of the plant begins, including its much larger and more complex Pretreatment Facility.

The Hanford budget also includes money for infrastructure repairs, as environmental cleanup is expected to continue for decades to come.

Money is proposed to repair water lines, electrical utilities, fire alarm systems and roads, as well as put in infrastructure to prepare for feeding low-activity waste directly to the vitrification plant’s Low Activity Waste Facility, Regalbuto said.

Now work begins in Congress to develop House and Senate versions of the Hanford budget.

“As every member of the Hanford community already knows, it is absolutely critical that work continues on schedule and in a safe, efficient manner, so I will continue to make it clear to both the administration and my colleagues in the House and the Senate that the federal government cannot shirk its obligation on Hanford cleanup,” Murray said.

As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray plans to question DOE officials at a scheduled hearing next month on how the administration’s proposed budget will allow the federal government to meet cleanup milestones at Hanford and other cleanup sites in the U.S.

Cantwell’s staff said she also will question Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in appropriation hearings.

Newhouse said he will work with colleagues to secure funding.

“The proposed reduction in funding violates the federal government’s legal and moral obligation to clean up Hanford and prepare the Mid-Columbia for a post-cleanup future,” he said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews