Stimulating a little progress on Hanford cleanup

The federal stimulus package will add some money for taking out nuclear garbage. But the whole sorry story is still mired in lawsuits, delays, and broken promises.
Crosscut archive image.

The vitrification plant at the Hanford Site in Washington, under construction. (Bechtel)

The federal stimulus package will add some money for taking out nuclear garbage. But the whole sorry story is still mired in lawsuits, delays, and broken promises.

The federal stimulus package won't be all about highway bridges, state budgets, or even the National Endowment for the Arts. A bit of that money will go to Hanford and other nuclear waste sites to clean up radioactive garbage that has been accumulating since World War II. Will stimulus spending finally make the federal government get serious about taking out the nuclear garbage at Hanford? Don't hold your breath.

The House stimulus bill includes a meager $500 million for nuclear cleanup. Before it passed, a bipartisan group of Senators from nuclear waste states wrote to the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, urging them to pony up $6 billion for cleanup. Sen. Maria Cantwell signed the letter and Sen. Patty Murray, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, also supported the idea. The Senate's version of a stimulus bill currently includes $6.4 billion for nuclear cleanup. that's a big jump from the token House amount, but still far short of what's needed.

Whatever passes, Hanford, the hemisphere'ꀙs most contaminated nuclear site, will get a substantial piece of the small pie. But the amount needed is massive, as an excursion into Hanford history will show.

The idea of using stimulus money at Hanford evokes a Depression-era image: a long line of men in bib overalls and cloth caps out in the desert using wood-handled shovels to dig trenches into which the accumulated waste can be dumped. That'ꀙs not what anybody has in mind, of course. Actually, the government has already tried the trenches-in-the-desert approach at Hanford — low-level waste was originally dumped into unlined trenches there — and also the cheap-single-shelled-steel-tanks-in-the-desert approach for longer-lived and more dangerous waste.

During World War II and the early years of the Cold War, when Hanford produced plutonium for the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs, plus the bombs that the Strategic Air Command kept ready to drop on the Soviet Union from the Berlin Airlift through the Cuban Missile Crisis, long-lived wastes were stored in 149 of those cheesy single-walled tanks, none of which had a planned life expectancy of more than 25 years, and later in 28 double-shelled ones.

Inevitably, these tanks have leaked. An estimated million gallons of liquid waste have contaminated soil and headed toward groundwater. As tanks continue to deteriorate, odds are that the volume will grow, and that contaminated groundwater will eventually make its way to the Columbia River.

Twenty years ago, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Ecology — headed at the time by Chris Gregoire — signed a Tri-Party Agreement that established benchmarks for progress and affirmed the state'ꀙs power to enforce two federal statutes, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). (The agreement was signed officially on May 15, 1989, but the parties actually agreed four months earlier, during the transition from the administration of Ronald Reagan to that of George W. Bush) Both govern the treatment and storage of non-radioactive hazardous wastes and mixed hazardous and nuclear waste. Congress has long-since preempted the regulation of unadulterated nuclear waste. The waste in all those old leaky tanks is thoroughly mixed.

Under the terms of the amended agreement, the feds are supposed to build a vitrification plant that will encase radioactive wastes in glass. Originally, they were to start vitrifying waste in 1999. The official starting date has been pushed back three times, to 2004, then to 2008, and finally to 2011. All the waste is supposed to be treated by 2027.

It'ꀙs not gonna happen. No one even pretends the vitrification plant will be up and running by 2011 or that all the waste will be treated by 2027. The current projected starting date is 2019. Some people think the plant will never work. Even optimists say the last high-level waste won'ꀙt be treated for another 40 years. The Department of Energy has fallen hopelessly behind schedule.

Frustrated, the state negotiated with the department from May 2007 to November of last year, hoping to get new, more rigorous deadlines that the feds would actually meet. They got close, but not close enough. 'ꀜDOE and the state reached agreement in principle on new cleanup deadlines, with the final version of the renegotiated agreement changing little from details made public more than a year ago,'ꀝ Annette Cary reported in the Tri-City Herald on November 26. 'ꀜHowever, when the Department of Justice started working on the legal language, talks took several steps backward, Gregoire said.'ꀝ

Litigation over cleanup scheduling was always Plan B. When it became clear that the negotiations had reached a dead end, Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna flew to Richland and announced that the state was going to court. Last November, right before Thanksgiving, the state filed a complaint against the Department of Energy, enumerating the missed deadlines, and asking a Federal District Court to order 'ꀜtimely'ꀝ progress toward the contractual goals.

In an answer to the state'ꀙs complaint filed late last week, the federal government basically argues that the state can'ꀙt sue it over deadlines it hasn'ꀙt missed yet. The Department of Justice says yeah, we missed some minor deadlines in the past, but there'ꀙs no way to know whether or not we'ꀙll miss the big ones in the future: 'ꀜDOE admits that it did not complete retrieval of waste from 16 C-Farm tanks by September 30, 2006, and that it did not complete waste retrieval from tank S-l 02 by March 31, 2007." However, 'ꀜDOE . . . asserts that predictions of compliance in future years are difficult to ascertain with certainty, given that future regulatory, technical and financial circumstances are inherently variable and presently unknown.'ꀝ

The Department of Energy has said publicly for years that building the vitrification plant and completing the cleanup process will take 20 years or so longer than advertised. Under the circumstances, 'ꀜit is a surprise to us that they say, 'ꀘwell it'ꀙs speculative'ꀙ'ꀝ that the deadlines will be missed, says Senior Assistant Attorney General Mary Sue Wilson.

The state wants the tanks pumped out and the waste vitrified before too much more of it leaches into the ground. The state'ꀙs complaint doesn'ꀙt attach specific dates to the tasks at hand. The courts can decide what constitutes timely progress toward building the vitrification plant, moving all the waste out of the old single-shelled tanks, treating all the high-level waste.

The complaint explains that everything has depended on completion of the vitrification plant, and the longer that'ꀙs delayed, the more the problems proliferate. 'ꀜEnergy'ꀙs strategy for addressing this situation has been to rely on the prospective future treatment capacity of the [vitrification plant] to remove waste from the [tank] systems. Energy has expected that over time, this will free [the double-shelled tanks'ꀙ] capacity to allow for the continued transfer of waste retrieved from the [single-shelled tanks.] Under this strategy, delays with the [vitrification plant] prolong the continued storage of tank waste in the unfit-for-use [single-shelled tanks.] Furthermore, the longer the timeline for treating Hanford'ꀙs tank waste becomes extended, the greater the risk that the [double-shelled tanks, which aren'ꀙt getting any younger,] may become non-compliant due to aging.'ꀝ

Obviously, the courts can'ꀙt force the federal government or its contractors to solve any technical problems that stand in the way of building a vitrification plant that actually works. Vitrification isn'ꀙt a new concept or a new process. The government is already vitrifying waste from nuclear arms production at Savannah River, and wastes are being vitrified in both England and France. But no one else has vitrified such a large amount of waste, or such a complex witches'ꀙ brew of substances. (The tanks contain at least 46 different radionuclides and 26 different non-radioactive forms of hazardous waste.) Some people doubt the plant will ever be built. Some see it as largely a jobs program for the Tri Cities. Wilson says the state believes it can be built. Stay tuned.

Even though the state'ꀙs complaint doesn'ꀙt ask the court for specific completion dates, Wilson says the state wants the tanks cleaned out and the waste treated by some time in the 2040s — just about exactly a century after the first waste was generated and the first steel tanks sunk in the desert at Hanford. She says the state figures that in very round numbers, if the feds keep spending $2 billion a year on Hanford, as they do now, they won'ꀙt meet those goals before the 2090s — 150 years after the fact. Actually, the state assumes that Hanford'ꀙs 'ꀜhotel cost'ꀝ — the money needed to keep the lights on, the roofs patched, the gates guarded — will increase to a point at which virtually no money goes into cleanup. But the state'ꀙs view of Hanford'ꀙs funding needs is a bit hazy. The Department of Energy has never shown it an estimate of full life-cycle costs for the clean-up process. And even if it had, the state would have no way to judge the reliability of its estimated costs.

Even if the plant is built on a court-ordered schedule and works like a Swiss watch, it won'ꀙt be — or shouldn'ꀙt be — the last stop for Hanford'ꀙs high level waste. Under the current plan, the radioactive glass logs that a vitrification plant produces will be shipped to the national waste repository at Nevada'ꀙs Yucca Mountain. But locals, national environmental groups, and candidate Barack Obama have all objected to the Yucca Mountain site. The waste repository may never be built. If the treated waste can'ꀙt go to Yucca Mountain, it may stay at Hanford for a long, long time. This wouldn't make vitrification irrelevant. It might be better to have radioactive glass logs stored there indefinitely than to have radioactive liquids leaching toward the water table.

With less-than-complete information, the state figures that to empty the tanks and treat the wastes by the 2040s, the feds would have to double the annual expenditure, to some $4 billion (in current, 2009 money), for at least the next 10 years. Stimulus money won'ꀙt get the cleanup process back on track. Probably none of it could be used on the treatment plant. Stimulus money will, of course, flow to projects that are 'ꀜshovel ready,'ꀝ and no significant unfunded treatment plant work is ready to go. Besides, the numbers don'ꀙt match up. A share of a share of a one-shot $6.4 billion stimulus wouldn'ꀙt get you very close to $4 billion a year.

This is not to say the stimulus money will be wasted. It will create jobs. And, a Murray spokesman says, it will "help reduce the overall footprint at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation by completing cleanup of the 210-square-mile Columbia River Corridor and consolidating cleanup operations to the 75-square-mile Central Plateau by 2015."

Money clearly isn'ꀙt the only problem with getting the Department of Energy to honor the Tri-Party Agreement. During the failed attempt to negotiate a new cleanup schedule, state negotiators talked with the political appointees who populate the upper, policy-making levels of the departments of Energy and Justice. In Wilson'ꀙs account, these high-level Bush administration officials wouldn'ꀙt agree to a fixed schedule that was actually enforceable. Annette Cary reported that the negotiations 'ꀜended when the Department of Justice and the state could not agree on language that the state believed would make revised deadlines enforceable by the court, state officials said.'ꀝ It'ꀙs one thing to have a schedule, quite another to let a state enforce it against a federal agency. The issue of enforceability 'ꀝis why we are where we are today,'ꀝ Wilson says. Conceivably, the change of administration will bring a change of attitude.

And if not? There'ꀙs a lot of precedent for a federal court imposing a compliance schedule, Wilson explains. But there may be no precedent for a court imposing a schedule that looks forward over 40 years. In fact, Wilson says, when the state was preparing to file this complaint, it couldn't find a single one.

Wilson hopes that a court order will force the feds to get serious about their Hanford obligations. A federal official who simply blew off a schedule imposed by a federal court might find himself personally cited for contempt. An official who wanted to change that schedule would have to convince a skeptical federal judge. At this point, 'ꀜwe don'ꀙt believe that the United States takes the Tri Party Agreement schedule requirements seriously,'ꀝ Wilson says. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs a compliance order under federal law,'ꀝ she explains. 'ꀜIt is surprising and disappointing that a federal agency doesn'ꀙt take it seriously.'ꀝ


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.