Inslee, AG issue new demands for Hanford cleanup

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RICHLAND — The state of Washington issued new demands Monday to hold the Department of Energy accountable for Hanford environmental cleanup over the next three decades.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, frustrated by the lack of a detailed DOE plan, proposed a new set of deadlines to amend a court-enforced consent decree approved in 2010. That agreement settled a lawsuit filed by the state.

DOE also gave the state a new proposal Monday to revise the consent decree.

The competing proposals are underpinned by opposing philosophies on how to make sure DOE protects the environment from 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks and treats that waste for disposal as soon as possible.

The state wants a plan with “very specific steps,” Inslee said.

The state proposal outlines a long list of new deadlines and requirements to get cleanup back on track to have all waste in underground tanks treated by 2047.

DOE proposed setting only near-term deadlines that it has confidence it can meet. Its proposal commits to negotiating and setting longer-term deadlines on a rolling schedule as DOE knows more about what work must be done.

First, DOE would make progress toward resolving technical issues and work on designs for proposed facilities.

DOE has notified the state that it is at risk of missing the remaining consent-decree deadlines for the Hanford vitrification plant, which is being built to turn tank waste into a stable glass form for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

DOE also has told the state that it may miss a deadline to have the last two of the 16 tanks in the C Tank Farm emptied this fall. Leak-prone, single-shell tanks are being emptied into newer, double-shell tanks for storage until the waste can be treated.

“The clock is up,” Inslee said at a news conference Monday. “The risk continues to grow and further delays are unacceptable.”

DOE will have until April 15 to accept the state’s proposal. The state already has said that DOE’s proposal is unacceptable.

If a proposal is not accepted by April 15, the state and federal government will enter dispute resolution for 40 days, as outlined in the consent decree. If they do not reach an agreement, either side can ask the court to intervene and amend the consent decree.

More tanks demanded

Among the state’s demands is that DOE build four new double-shell tanks by 2022 and four more by 2024 to provide space to safely store an additional 8 million gallons of waste.

If DOE could meet the deadlines in the 2010 consent decree, waste theoretically would be treated soon enough to free up double-shell tank space to allow more single-shell tanks to be emptied, according to the state. However, DOE has said it may not begin treating waste at the vitrification plant in 2019 and may not be fully operating the plant by 2022 as required by the agreement.

The state plan would set a rigid schedule with incremental deadlines to keep DOE on pace to get all 149 single-shell tanks emptied by 2040.

To protect groundwater from leak-prone single-shell tanks in the meantime, the state would require DOE to pump more liquid from 24 tanks that either have the most liquid or the waste that would pose the greatest risk to the environment, said Jane Hedges, the director of the state Department of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program. Much of the pumpable liquid was previously removed from single-shell tanks.

The state also would require DOE to speed work to clean up soil contamination deep underground in central Hanford before it reaches the groundwater and to expand groundwater treatment in central Hanford.

Disagreement over deadlines

The state and DOE disagree on when waste must be treated, but did find some limited agreement on the strategy for treating waste. Energy Secretary Steven Moniz said he was pleased that both proposals recognize the need to begin operating the Low Activity Waste Facility at the vitrification plant to get some waste treated while technical issues are being addressed elsewhere at the plant.

Inslee called it a “creative” approach to get waste treated sooner. The state wants the Low Activity Waste Facility to start operating in 2019 and have 10 percent of the low activity radioactive waste turned to glass by 2022.

In contrast, DOE is proposing that the first low-activity waste glass be produced in 2022.

The state would give DOE four more years to start up the High Level Waste Facility, with a new deadline of 2026, and six more years to start the Pretreatment Facility, moving that deadline to 2028.

Both facilities have technical issues that DOE wants to resolve, giving it more confidence that it can meet deadlines before they are set.

DOE may be able to solve some technical issues more quickly by simplifying the design of the Pretreatment Facility, it revealed in its proposal.

Replacing larger and varied tanks within the Pretreatment Facility with smaller and uniform tanks could help resolve technical issues related to keeping the waste well mixed, according to the proposal.

Both state and DOE proposals also agreed on the need for two new facilities to be built, one to prepare waste to be fed directly to the Low Activity Waste Facility, and the other to blend, sample and stage waste before it is sent to other vitrification plant facilities.

State wants court more involved

The state is proposing keeping progress at the vitrification plant moving forward by setting a schedule with 124 steps toward getting the plant completed and all tank waste treated.

Other proposed requirements would make DOE more accountable to the courts.

That part of the proposal grew out of the state’s frustration that DOE waited more than two years after notifying the state that consent decree deadlines were at risk before it discussed a possible plan to remedy that, Hedges said.

The state wants DOE to provide status reports to the court and state four times a year. If deadlines are at risk of being missed, DOE would be required to provide a plan within 45 days on how it would catch up. The state also wants DOE to tell the court annually how large a budget is required to meeting deadlines.

DOE is committed to moving forward as expeditiously as possible toward treating tank waste, Moniz said.

“At a time of fiscal uncertainty, this proposal represents the first step toward achieving those goals by providing a realistic, yet aggressive approach,” DOE’s proposal said.

Among the near-term deadlines that DOE included in its proposal was a one-year extension to finish emptying waste from all C Farm tanks by September 2016. It also would have nine more tanks emptied by fall 2022.

Hastings: Consider tradeoffs

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said neither proposal is perfect, but he welcomed them as a way to move closer to an agreement on a real plan to get tank waste treated.

The ink was barely dry on the 2010 consent decree when it began to look like commitments could not be met, he said.

“As proposals are considered, I am hopeful that all involved are mindful of the need to achieve a workable, achievable and fundable path forward in short order,” he said.

He is concerned after reviewing the Obama administration’s recently released budget proposal for Hanford in fiscal 2015 about where money will come from to meet increased costs of new plans for the vitrification plant, he said.

The administration budget proposal apparently would cover increased costs at the expense of environmental cleanup elsewhere at Hanford and the DOE nationwide complex, he said.

He’s equally concerned that if more tanks are built, resources would be diverted from treating tank waste.

“It’s critical that everyone understands exactly that the trade-offs are in any plan,” he said.

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