State calls Hanford cleanup delays a ‘violation’ of consent decree

A warning sign near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Credit: 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.

The DOE has also blamed delays on unresolved problems with potential hydrogen explosions, uncontrolled radiation bursts and the likelihood of leaks and clogs in the treatment systems. As Crosscut reported in 2012, Hanford supervisors and experts who first warned about these problems back in 2010, were reprimanded and exiled to minor posts. Two were eventually laid off.

The state and the DOE have until April 15 to resolve their differences and agree on proposed amendments to the 2010 consent decree. If they can't, a federal judge will have 40 extra days to resolve the matter.

"This is a moral commitment to our grandkids that we have to stand up for,” Inslee said at Monday press conference. “… Patience is a virtue. But so is honoring your commitment to the state."

Both the state and the feds agree that low-level radioactive waste is the simpler stream to glassify, and that it should be handled first. But they dioffer in the details.

The state wants glassification to ramp up in 2019 with 10 percent of the low-level wastes converted by 2022. That's a bit faster than the current legal timetable. It also wants to delay glassifying high-level wastes from 2022 to 2026, and have enough new double-shell tanks to accommodate 8 million gallons of wastes by 2022. (A typical double-shell tank holds 1 million gallons. At $80 million per tank, that's a $640 million task.) The state also wants all pumpable liquids out of the 24 single-shell tanks by 2028.

Meanwhile, DOE wants to postpone low-level waste ramp up to 2022, three years behind the current legal schedule. The agency  hasn't proposed a deadline for when the high-level-radioactive-wastes facility would be fully operational, other than sometime after the current 2022 deadline. There is no new tank buiilding in the DOE proposal. The agency proposes pumping out 16 single shell tanks by 2022. 

Hopefully, the state and DOE will be able to work through their differences and get the Hanford cleanup project on a fast track. The longer we wait, the greater the danger and the steeper the price.

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