HANFORD NUCLEAR RESERVATION, Benton County — By 2022, two gigantic melters are scheduled to be generating 2,100-degree heat that will bond radioactive waste into glass logs for long-term disposal of one of the most toxic legacies of the U.S. production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
The melters were a highlight of a visit to Hanford on Wednesday by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. They form the core of a plant that will help treat 56 million gallons of waste, which is mixed with chemicals stored in 177 aging tanks, some of which are leaking.
After nearly two decades of construction, contractors have begun to test operating systems to prepare for the startup. Yet big questions loom about how much of the tank contents will be processed at the plant that holds the melters. Meanwhile, construction of two other key units in a 65-acre waste treatment complex has been on hold for years while engineers grapple with technical issues.
Plenty of other challenges remain in a gargantuan Hanford cleanup begun in the late 20th century that is projected to continue deep into this century. The scope of the pollution is a humbling testament to the mess humans can create, and the restoration effort is expected to cost a staggering sum: more than $320 billion, mostly for processing the tank waste, according to a low-range projection in a report released this year by the federal Energy Department, which manages the Hanford site.
For watchdogs, concerns about the direction of Hanford’s cleanup have been heightened in recent months by a Trump administration proposal — first published in the federal register back in October — to tweak the definition of high-level radioactive wastes. The rule, once finalized, would give the Energy Department new power to reclassify some of the tank contents as low-level radioactive wastes. That could allow more of the tank waste to bypass the treatment complex, and be disposed of through less costly options, a move that could trigger a legal challenge from Washington state.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson in January declared their “strong opposition” to the reclassification proposal. In comments to the Energy Department, they wrote that the new proposed rule could result in a cleanup that leaves “the Columbia River and the surrounding community with unacceptable levels of risk.”
The proposed Hanford budget is another flashpoint for critics of the Trump administration’s approach to the cleanup. The proposal calls for cutting by 18 percent the $3.3 billion budget that federal Energy Department staff say is required to meet a cleanup timeline established in a court-approved settlement with the states of Washington and Oregon.
Opposition from Pacific Northwest lawmakers likely makes this Trump administration Hanford budget dead on arrival in Congress.
“I know the outcome. And I know that in the end, we will prevail,” Cantwell told Energy Secretary Rick Perry in an April 2 hearing held by the Senate and Energy Natural Resources Committee. “We’ve got to get on the same page because I guarantee you, Hanford is never going to be done on the cheap.”
“You’re absolutely correct,” Perry responded.
The cleanup follows Hanford operations that began in World War II and continued through the Cold War era, yielding 74 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. By the time the last reactor shut down in 1988, Hanford, which spreads across 586 square miles of South Central Washington, ranked as the most contaminated nuclear site in North America.
The plutonium production dumped more than 450 billion gallons of liquid waste and cooling water into the soil. That created plumes of groundwater pollution. Some reached the Columbia River but have been diluted enough so that tritium, chromium and strontium-90 contaminants do not pose a health threat, according to a state Ecology Department official, Alex Smith, who monitors Hanford,
For years, Hanford contractors have worked to clean up groundwater, in part through a process known as pump and treat that removes pollutants from up to 108 million gallons of water each month. “It is a huge success. It is the biggest treatment plant of its kind in the country,” Smith said.
Other major undertakings at Hanford in recent years include shoring up with grout a tunnel that partially collapsed, and continuing that work on a second tunnel, at risk of failing and releasing airborne radiation.
Contractors also have started demolishing a plutonium finishing complex, consisting of some 60 buildings involved in forming plutonium into solids the size of hockey-sized pucks for shipment for weapons production. The Energy Department halted work in December 2017 after radioactive particles spread from the site, and 42 workers were found to have inhaled or ingested small amounts of radioactive contamination.
Some work resumed this spring at a lower-risk portion of the site, with the project director, Tom Teynor, noting in a written statement that “enhanced safety controls have proved effective in protecting workers, the public and the environment.”
For decades, the Energy Department and its contractors have wrestled with the challenges of managing the chemical and radioactive waste stored in the 177 tanks.
More than 60 tanks have leaked, contaminating groundwater, according to an Energy Department document.
The tanks’ venting also has worried workers, concerned that vapors and fumes put their health at risk. The state attorney general filed a 2015 lawsuit that challenged the Energy Department management of the tank farms, which led to a 2018 settlement that called for new monitoring and testing of technology to capture and destroy vapors.
Most of the tank waste is liquid, but the tanks also include a mix of sludge and a moist sand-like material called saltcake along with some 1,800 chemicals. Each tank is different, and never before has there been an attempt at such large-scale processing of such a complex mix of radioactive waste.
The tanks’ contents all are currently designated as high-level radioactive wastes. But generally, the liquids have less contamination while the solids may have much higher levels.
Contractors back in 2001 began building the processing complex, which includes two dozen buildings across a 65-acre site.
The Energy Department planned to initially send the waste through a 12-story pretreatment plant, which would separate the sludge and other solids from the more liquid radioactive materials.
The pretreatment plant’s massive framework of steel — stretching more than the length of one and a half football fields — rises out of the desert. But construction on the pretreatment plant stopped in 2012 amid whistleblower concerns that included risks of hydrogen explosions and radioactive waste eating its way through metal tanks in the building.
Due to design issues, construction also has stalled on a second major facility to handle some of the most radioactive waste.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department and project contractor Bechtel National are focused on completing the plant with the two melters, which is designed to process liquids.
This plant was never designed with the capacity to handle all of the liquid waste. Some materials were always destined to go through alternative treatments, according to Smith, of the state Ecology Department.
But the portion of wastes that might be sent through the plant could drop still lower if the Energy Department finalizes the new rule, and designates more of this material as low-level radioactive waste.
Some could be encased in grout, and shipped to other states for storage.
State officials also are concerned that some tanks holding less radioactive waste could be filled with a concrete-like grout and left in place.
Smith said the state’s analysis indicates that the tanks will break down, and the radioactive waste could continue to make its way into the groundwater.