State, feds square off over Hanford

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

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 differ 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.

DOE wants to postpone any ramping up of glassification of low-level wastes until 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 building in the DOE proposal. The agency proposes pumping out 16 single shell tanks by 2022. 

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