Washington state

Feds will negotiate Hanford waste deadlines, but state must make some promises

The Department of Energy has agreed to negotiate with the state of Washington over deadlines for Hanford environmental cleanup that the state fears are at risk of being missed.

It agreed to a framework for negotiations on Wednesday, including a series of steps that came out of August discussions with the Washington state Department of Ecology.

DOE wants Ecology to agree not to file new lawsuits or take enforcement action related to at-risk deadlines during the negotiations.

The two agencies also would put aside a disagreement on whether DOE should build more tanks or other ways to securely store radioactive waste that is now in leak-prone single-shell tanks.

The federal court, which set some of the at-risk deadlines in a 2016 consent decree, would be informed and aware of the negotiations as they proceed.

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Environmental cleanup is underway at the 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation. The underground tank farms, storing waste from the past production of plutonium, are in the center of the site. Courtesy Department of Energy

DOE’s formal agreement to enter negotiations was provided to Maia Bellon, director of the Department of Ecology, in a letter from Hanford DOE manager Brian Vance on Wednesday.

It came just a week after DOE notified the state that it was at serious risk of missing some court-enforced deadlines for constructing and operating the $17 billion Hanford vitrification plant. The notification could return the matter to federal court.

“We’re encouraged that Energy is willing to discuss a path forward on those milestones under court supervision, in context with discussing the broader Hanford tank waste mission,” Bellon said Wednesday.

DOE: Some Hanford deadlines at risk

However, she had just received the letter and Ecology was evaluating its specific points on Wednesday, she said.

The Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland has 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste stored in underground tanks.

The waste is left from the past production of plutonium during World War II and the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Work is underway to empty the waste in 149 leak-prone single-shell tanks into 27 newer double-shell tanks for storage until it can be treated for disposal.

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The tank farms in the center of Hanford store 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste in underground tanks until the waste can be treated for disposal. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

Much of the waste could be immobilized in a stable glass form in the $17 billion vitrification plant, called the Waste Treatment Plant, under construction in the center of the Hanford Site. Construction started in 2002, and DOE is confident it can start limited waste treatment at the plant by a court-enforced deadline of 2023.

Initially, some low-activity radioactive waste separated out of the tank waste would be treated.

At risk are deadlines to construct and operate parts of the plant that would handle the high-level radiaoctive waste portion of the tank waste.

DOE told the state last week it may not be able to meet consent decree deadlines to start treating high-level waste at the vit plant by 2033 or have the plant fully operational by 2036. Pacing deadlines to keep work on track to meet the 2033 and 2036 deadlines also could be missed.

Potential issues with Hanford deadlines initially were raised by Bellon in a May 29 letter to DOE. She called for a “frank discussion” on challenges DOE appeared to be facing.

State wants more tanks

Bellon called into question not only whether vit plant deadlines could be met, but also other deadlines related to waste storage tanks, including some in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement.

She said in May that DOE does not appear able to meet deadlines for emptying tanks by 2040 and having the waste treated by 2047 under its current funding level, which is about $2.5 billion a year for all Hanford work.

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The Hanford nuclear reservation’s vitrification plant is required by a federal court to start treating low activity radioactive waste now held in underground tanks by 2023. The Department of Energy is considering how it can have a system operating to prepare the waste to feed the plant by then. Courtesy Bechtel National

She also called for new waste storage to be built, saying the 27 double-shell tanks are inadequate. DOE has been adamantly opposed to spending money on new double-shell tanks, saying the money would be better spent on getting the waste treated.

“We are willing, in good faith, to work with you to collectively identify a holistic and realistic path forward for Hanford’s tank waste, one that addresses all aspects of the tank waste mission and, ideally, does not need to be revisited every few years,” Bellon said.

DOE’s letter sent Wednesday outlines what DOE said it was agreeing to, based on discussions held Aug. 28 with Ecology in Seattle.

It said DOE, Ecology and the third tri-party agency — the Enviornmental Protection Agency — would start meetings within 30 days to identify the scope of negotiations.

By early November, DOE and Ecology would prepare and file documents in federal court describing the scope of negotiations, the time needed to complete negotiations and a schedule for reporting progress of the negotiations.

The agencies would consider hiring a professional mediator.

Negotiations should be completed by July 31, and any new proposed consent decree deadlines then would be presented to the court.

Until then, DOE and Ecology would provide regular joint reports to the court on consent decree deadlines and the status of effort to develop a new path forward.

“We look forward to further discussions regarding the details of the path forward,” Vance told Bellon.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.