Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Monday stepped up the pressure on the Department of Energy to improve its handling of the nuclear waste cleanup at the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington.
The pressure comes in the form of a proposed set of changes to the 2010 consent decree governing the treatment and permanent disposal of 56 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid and sludge housed at the site.
The state's proposal acknowledges that the federal government will miss a 2019 deadline for starting up the $13 billion Waste Treatment Plant to convert highly radioactive liquid waste into glass for long-term storage. The Inslee-Ferguson proposal sets a new deadline of 2027 for starting up the plant, with full operations underway by 2028 -- 6 years past the original deadline.
Inslee and Ferguson also would impose a set of deadlines for solving a number of technical problems with the Waste Treatment Plant project to ensure that the new 2028 deadline is met. And the state’s plan requires the completion of all waste treatment by the same ultimate deadline -- no later than 2047.
The proposal also calls for constructing 8 million gallons of new double-shell tank space by 2024, with the first 4 million gallons of space due by 2022. The state has been pushing this idea since 2012, noting that some tanks are leaking and all are past their expected design lives.
Ferguson and Inslee also propose:
- A series of rigid pacing deadlines to ensure waste removal from the single-shell tanks is completed no later than 2040.
- New environmental safety requirements for groundwater treatment and to minimize leaking as the waste is removed and treated.
- New terms to the 2010 consent decree, including quartely progress reports filed with the state and the court.
"I am totally confident this is the right thing for the state of Washington to do. The reason is that we have shown extreme patience with the federal government," Inslee said.
The proposed changes come 10 days after the state Department of Ecology ordered a new, faster timetable for pumping out a massive double-shell waste tank -- designated AY-102 -- that is slowly leaking highly radioactive waste. On that same day, the KING 5 Investigators broke the story that the state was preparing new action against the U.S. Department of Energy to ensure that cleanup deadlines are met.
The actions announced Monday are aimed at forcing the federal government to live up to its agreements at Hanford -– especially the legal requirement to have the site’s Waste Treatment Plant in initial operation by 2019. The federal government has already said it will miss those deadlines by years. The deadlines were part of the 2010 consent decree.
Inslee and Ferguson noted that the consent decree governing the Hanford cleanup gives the federal government until April 15 to declare whether it accepts the state's proposed plan. If the Energy Department does not choose to comply, it must explain why. And if Washington receives no answer from the federal government, the state may ask the court to impose the new requirements, even over the Energy Department's objection.
Monday's announcement was hinted at by Inslee and Ferguson after their March 17 meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in Olympia. Both said the state was considering legal action to force the government to live up to its agreements at Hanford.
Inslee and Ferguson were dismissive of the Department of Energy's own proposal for amending the consent decree, a plan that was officially unveiled Monday but was previewed during Moniz's visit on the 17th.
“Although I appreciate Secretary Moniz placing a high priority on Hanford, the state needs a plan that includes a detailed and comprehensive path forward,” Inslee said Monday. “Our proposed amendments to the consent decree address this need by providing very specific steps for meeting these deadlines to ensure Hanford cleanup is completed in a timely manner.”
“Today, the state is demanding the federal government meet its legal commitments at Hanford,” Ferguson said Monday. “We are proposing new requirements to increase accountability, protect the environment, and reduce the possibility of further delays.”
Moniz, in a press release Monday, said Energy's own plan answers the state's concerns about the cleanup.
"Both of our plans move in the near-term toward processing low activity waste and recognize the need to overcome technical problems in other areas of the project," Moniz said. "We will review the state's proposal and look ahead to further discussions."
The Energy Department said the scientific complexity of the work demanded changes in the agreement.
Of particular concern is the stalled construction of a one-of-a-kind waste treatment plant to convert the most dangerous radioactive wastes into a glasslike substance for eventual burial.
"Since the consent decree was entered, extensive analysis by DOE and independent experts has shown that the WTP as currently designed cannot be assured for 40 years of safe operation," the Energy Department said. "A new approach is needed."
The Energy Department proposed changing the decree by focusing first on the liquid portion of the waste and continuing to research solutions for the rest of it.
Hanford is considered one of the most contaminated places on the planet. Located in southeastern Washington, the 586-square-mile reservation was home to massive factories that produced plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal. Starting in 1943 and lasting until 1989, the plutonium production produced huge volumes of waste, including 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid and sludge that's been kept in carbon steel tanks.
-- Additional reporting by the Associated Press.