DOE says no layoffs, but proposed Hanford cut draws ire

Workers prepare to weld melters at the Low Activity Waste Facility at the Hanford vitrification plant. Construction on the facility could be finished in 2018.
Workers prepare to weld melters at the Low Activity Waste Facility at the Hanford vitrification plant. Construction on the facility could be finished in 2018. Bechtel National

No layoffs are anticipated at Hanford despite a sharp decrease in some funding proposed for the next fiscal year, the Department of Energy’s top environmental cleanup official said.

That’s welcome news for Hanford workers. However, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee remains “extremely concerned” about what a drastically reduced budget would mean for crucial cleanup work at Hanford, he said.

The fiscal 2017 budget proposed by the Obama administration would cut spending for the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office from $991 million this fiscal year to $800 million in fiscal 2017.

“The work conducted by (the Richland Operations Office) protects the Columbia River, a resource of incalculable value to the residents of the Pacific Northwest,” Inslee wrote in a letter to leaders of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Monica Regalbuto, the DOE assistant secretary for environmental cleanup, answered questions at a hearing of the congressional subcommittee this week.

Some carryover from the current fiscal year would help fill in some of the gaps in next year’s budget, and no layoffs are expected to result, Regalbuto said. The budget was not passed until the third month of this fiscal year, which slowed the start of some work it funds.

The proposed 2017 budget includes more money for Hanford’s second DOE office, the Office of River Protection, which is responsible for Hanford radioactive waste stored in underground tanks and the vitrification plant being built to treat it.

The proposed 2017 budget for River Protection is $86 million more than current spending, and $287 million more than spending a year ago.

The additional work is already creating opportunities for union workers to move from some Richland Operations Office projects, such as the final stages of cleaning out the Plutonium Finishing Plant, to work at the Hanford tank farms where radioactive waste is stored underground.

Vit plant costs to rise significantly

Regalbuto also was questioned about the Hanford vitrification plant and its escalating costs. She reconfirmed that costs are increasing.

The last complete and audited cost estimate for the plant — $12.2 billion — was completed in 2006, an increase from the $5.5 billion that had been projected in 2003.

Federal officials have said a new estimate for the plant is necessary after technical issues were raised in parts of the plant handling high-level radioactive waste. The former energy secretary, Steven Chu, said during a visit to Hanford in 2012 that he was “very concerned” about the cost.

Asked this week by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, if the cost of the plant will go up a lot, Regalbuto said it would.

More about the cost could be known very soon, when DOE completes contract renegotiations with the vitrification plant contractor, Bechtel National, Regalbuto said.

The contract will be changed as DOE moves toward a way to treat low-activity radioactive waste at the plant about a decade before other parts of the plant affected by technical issues begin operating.

Inslee said he appreciated the commitment to Office of River Protection work in the fiscal 2017 budget proposal. It would put spending at almost $1.5 billion.

But other priorities, including completion of cleanup along the Columbia River shoreline, would be dramatically affected by the cut for the Richland Operations Office, he said.

“Projects that are extremely important to the state of Washington, and that are moving forward to completion, would be severely impacted and, in many cases, halted completely as a result of the budget reduction that has been proposed,” he said in his letter.

Examples include cleanup of the highly radioactive spill under the 324 Building just north of Richland, completing cleanup of the high-hazard 618-10 Burial Ground six miles north of Richland, cleanup of the K Reactors area along the river, and improvements to groundwater treatment near the river, he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, one of the Hanford regulators, is not happy with the disparity between the proposed budget of $800 million for one Hanford office and almost $1.5 billion for the other, said Craig Cameron of the EPA.

The deep cut proposed at Richland Operations would mean too much money spent just for maintenance rather than progress on environmental cleanup, he said.

Plans outlined for fiscal 2018

DOE provided more information this week on the fiscal 2017 budget proposal for Hanford and a first look at the money needed for fiscal 2018 in a public hearing and all-day workshop of the Hanford Advisory Board.

Key projects planned by the Office of River Protection for fiscal 2018 include five operating campaigns of the Hanford evaporator facility to create more space in double-shell storage tanks to empty waste from leak-prone single-shell tanks.

Work would move on from the C Tank Farm to start emptying two single-shell tanks in the AX Tank Farm.

At the vitrification plant, construction would be completed on the Low Activity Waste Facility, which could start vitrifying low-activity radioactive waste for disposal as soon as 2022. That would require a new facility to be built to prepare the waste, the Low Activity Waste Pretreatment System. Construction on it would start in fiscal 2018.

DOE has not released an estimated cost for the proposed fiscal 2018 work under the Office of River Protection.

For the Richland Operations Office, the work outlined for fiscal 2018 would require a little more than $1 billion, or about $200 million more than the Obama administration wants to spend in fiscal 2017.

Removal of contaminated material would not start at the 324 Building even in fiscal 2018 under the proposal, but the 618-10 Burial Ground cleanup could finally be completed that year.

Demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which is supposed to be done by the start of fiscal 2017, would be completed that year, freeing up the $30 million needed annually to keep the complex in a safe condition.

The removal of radioactive sludge for the K West Basin near the Columbia River could begin in fiscal 2018, following more preparations for the project in fiscal 2017.

Nearly 2,000 cesium and strontium capsules would still be stored in an underwater pool in central Hanford in fiscal 2018, but a design for a canister storage pad for them should be completed and work to purchase casks to hold them on the pad should have started.

With most contaminated buildings near the Columbia River demolished, decontamination and demolition work would move to some support buildings near huge processing plants in central Hanford in fiscal 2017.

DOE is accepting comments until April 18 as it starts work on the fiscal 2018 Hanford budget. Send them to 2018HanfordBudget@rl.gov or to Department of Energy; Attn: 2018 Budget Priorities; P.O. Box 550, A7-75; Richland, WA 99352

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews