Washington and the Energy Department need to negotiate a new path for the troubled cleanup of Hanford, according to a six-page letter written by the state Ecology Department director, Maia Bellon, who warned of litigation should those talks not happen.
State officials and the Trump administration appear increasingly at odds over the direction of the most difficult and expensive part of that task — finding a way to treat 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive wastes held in 177 aging tanks, some of which are leaking.
Construction has been halted on two partially-built plants that were initially intended to be key parts of a $17 billion complex designed to bond the wastes in glass for safe long-term storage, and Bellon took issue with decision-making that left the state out of the loop.
In her May 29 letter to Anne White, an Energy Department assistant secretary responsible for the federal nuclear site, Bellon said the cleanup of tank wastes is at a “critical juncture.” She called for the tank waste treatment to be completed as close to court-ordered timetables as possible, and for a commitment to build new tanks to store some of the wastes.
White has been a key figure for charting the Trump administration’s approach to the Hanford cleanup that has pushed for a reduction in the costs projected to total at least $323 billion by the end of this century.
White has submitted her resignation effective later this month, and that has thrown even more uncertainty into the future of the Hanford cleanup.
White’s resignation became public last Friday, two days after Bellon sent her letter. On Tuesday, an Energy Department official confirmed that Bellon’s letter had been received, and said, “We will be responding to the Washington Department of Ecology through the proper channels.”
Controversy over the future of the Hanford cleanup also has been stoked by an Energy Department move to change the definition of high-level radioactive waste, allowing more materials in Hanford tanks to be classified as low-level waste. The Energy Department’s proposal, finalized Wednesday, is expected to make it possible for more of the waste to bypass the treatment complex and be disposed of through less costly options, such as encasing some of the material in grout.
The old definition was based on how the materials were produced, and the new definition will be based on their radioactive characteristics, according to an Energy Department statement released Wednesday. The old definition had a “one-size-fits-all approach that has led to decades of delay, cost billions of dollars, and left the waste trapped in…facilities in the states of South Carolina, Washington and Idaho without a permanent disposal solution,” the statement said.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, in an earlier statement released in January, declared their “strong opposition” to the proposal to change the definition of high-level radioactive waste, saying it would leave “the Columbia River and the surrounding community with unacceptable levels of risk.”
Hanford operations, which began during World War II, produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped over Nagasaki. 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 state signed a 1989 agreement with the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to guide Hanford restoration work. Since then, it has repeatedly gone to federal court to set deadlines for different parts of the tank waste cleanup, and then gone back to court when it looked like those dates would not be met.
Currently, limited operations at the waste treatment facility are expected to begin by 2022.
But Bellon, in her letter, cites a lack of progress on two key parts of the cleanup, and says the Energy Department is poised to divert resources away from the path required by court-approved consent decrees based on the 1989 agreement.
Some of her concern is focused on the stalled construction of a pretreatment plant designed to separate liquids from more highly-radioactive sludges. This work has been on hold for years due to concerns that the design risked explosions and other hazards. And Bellon, in her letter, was critical of an Energy Department “unilateral” decision in 2018 to not resume construction, and shift focus to an alternative approach to treating the liquids.
The Energy Department also has stopped work on another major plant — which is over budget and far behind schedule — to handle the high-level radioactive sludges that often cake the bottom of the tanks. Bellon’s letter noted that the Energy Department last year initiated an internal analysis to consider alternatives to completing construction.
Bellon said any new agreement must enable the high-level waste treatment to begin “as close as possible” to consent decree deadlines, which call for 2034 commissioning of the plant.
“If we agree to change the pathway for Hanford’s tank waste, we need to be sure the new path is thoughtful, meets the state of Washington’s and USDOE (Energy Department) needs, and does not need to be revisited every few years,” Bellon wrote.