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State calls Hanford cleanup delays a 'violation' of consent decree

After unsuccessful negotiations, the governor and attorney general had harsh words for the Department of Energy.
A warning sign near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

A warning sign near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Lippert61/Flickr

The Department of Energy’s current legal timetable for dealing with 56 million gallons of highly radioactive fluids and sludges in 177 leaky underground tanks seems to be a lost cause and Washington state officials are not amused.  

On Monday, after several days of unsuccessful talks about how best to deal with Hanford’s leaks, Inslee and the U.S. Department of Energy each unveiled significantly different fix-it plans.

Inslee’s recommended cutting the Department of Energy some slack on dealing with high-level radioactive wastes in exchange for a stronger push to begin glassifying low-level radioactive wastes, which both sides agree are simpler to tackle. The governor also proposed building new tanks to hold about 8 million gallons of waste — a $640 million task.

The Department of Energy proposal, also released Monday, would delay glassification of low-level radioactive waste by three years and glassification of high-level waste by an undetermined length of time. DOE did not propose any new storage tanks for overflow nuclear waste.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Inslee and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson criticized the DOE’s vague, non-detailed approach to cleanup catch up. "In short," said Fergusopn, "we believe the federal government has violated the consent decree."

"Further delays are unacceptable," added Inslee.

In a written statement, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said that he was “pleased that both of our plans move in the near term toward processing low activity waste and recognize the need to overcome technical problems in other areas of the project. We will review the State's proposal and look ahead to further discussions as we continue working together on a path forward."

Hanford’s worst problems are 149 leak-prone single-shell tanks and 28 double-shell tanks — some also leaky — that have exceeded their design shelf-lives. Lurking inside the tanks is a complex mix of solid, gooey and liquid radioactive waste. The first leak, in the inner hull of a double-shell tank, was detected in late 2013.

Hanford has already pumped most of the fluids from its leaky single-shell tanks into double-shell tanks, but solids and sludges left behind have mixed with rainfall, creating additional radioactive fluids that are leaking out of the tanks and seeping into the groundwater. Eventually, these wastes will flow into the nearby Columbia River.

Hanford's original master cleanup plan was mapped out in a 1989 legal contract among the state, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Under that plan, tank wastes were to be converted into relatively benign glass starting in 1999, at a cost of $4 billion.

Numerous delays and budget increases have pushed that deadline back. Currently, glassification is set to begin in 2019 and to be going full-speed by 2022 at a cost of $12.7 billion-plus. DOE's latest proposal would push those deadlines back even further.  

Monday's press conference by Inslee and Ferguson is just the latest in a long string of efforts by the state to push back against DOE dawdling. In 2008, the state filed suit against DOE, charging that the agency was behind on its obligations. In 2010, the two sides signed a consent decree that mapped out new deadlines, including the 2019 and 2022 glassification milestones.

Since that renegotiation, the DOE has already let one deadline slip. By 2012 , the agency was supposed to have set up pre-treatment equipment, which is hasn't. DOE is also expected to miss a late 2014 deadline, by which it was scheduled to finish part of a glassification facility for low-level waste. DOE has also missed deadlines for removing radioactive liquids from several single-shell tanks.

The project's difficulty has certainly contributed to its long timeline and history of delays. The scale of the clean-up is unprecedented and Hanford's tank wastes are a half-understood mishmash of dozens of radioactive chemicals and compounds, which have to be chemically and physically separated before glassification. Most of the key equipment in the glassification complex will become so radioactive that operations, maintenance and repairs will have to be done only by remote control.


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