State, feds square off over Hanford

Attorney General Bob Ferguson says legal action against the U.S. Department of Energy could begin as early as next week.
Plans call for use of this type of tank to receive melted wastes at Hanford's glassification complex.

Plans call for use of this type of tank to receive melted wastes at Hanford's glassification complex. John Stang

Washington state is rejecting a U.S. Department of Energy catch-up plan on delays in dealing with Hanford's radioactive tank wastes. The state argues that the feds' proposal is vague and loaded with wiggle room.

“Today’s announcement should serve as notice to Energy that we are considering taking the next legal step as early as next week,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Friday in a press release. That next step is mediation of up to 40 days. If there is still any dispute at that point, a federal judge would serve as the final arbiter.

The Department of Energy countered Friday that the state's stance is unrealistic about the speed at which complicated technical advances will be developed. Energy officials also said that the state is failing to take into account that Congress' has been spending less money on Hanford's cleanup than Washington's proposal would require.

DOE officials sent a letter back to the state taking issue with major parts of the state’s proposal. The letter said: "DOE cannot accept it for a number of reasons, including the fact that it does not adequately account to the realities of technical issue resolution, project management imperatives, and fiscal constraints, and that it exceeds the scope of the consent decree."

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, totaling 56 million gallons. The first leak in the inner hull of a double-shell tank was detected in late 2013. The leak was one of several factors driving Gov. Jay Inslee to ask the federal government to step up its work on addressing the wastes.

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 the deadline later and later. Currently, glassification is set to begin in 2019 and to be going full-speed by 2022 — after work now estimated to cost at least $12.7 billion. DOE's latest proposal would push those deadlines back even further.  

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 it hasn't. DOE is also expected to miss a late 2014 deadline for finishing part of a glassification facility for low-level waste. DOE has also missed deadlines for removing radioactive liquids from several single-shell tanks.

On March 31, the state and DOE each released proposed catch-up plans. On Friday, the state turned thumbs down on DOE's proposal. 

"An acceptable path forward would need to be aggressive, but realistic, and it would have to give the state confidence that the tank waste retrieval and treatment missions will be completed as soon as possible. Energy's March 31, 2014 amendment proposal fails to meet these expectations. .. ...Energy's proposal instead takes the consent decree a step back in terms of specificity, accountability, enforceability and substance," said a letter to DOE from Mary Sue Wilson and Andrew Fitz, attorneys with the Washington Department of Ecology.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

"The Department of Energy countered Friday that the state's stance is unrealistic about the speed at which complicated technical advances will be developed."

We need some perspective here. These radioactive wastes will be toxic for some 10,000 years. So it seems entirely reasonable for the feds to take about a thousand years to come up with a way to handle them.

woofer

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »