Budget cuts threaten work at leaking Hanford nuke tanks

OLYMPIA — Federal budget cuts may disrupt efforts to close the radioactive waste tanks currently leaking at Hanford Nuclear Reservation and lead to layoffs or furloughs among workers there, officials said Tuesday.

In a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the Department of Energy estimates that it will have to eliminate $92 million in funding for the Office of River Protection at Hanford, which will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers. Inslee spokesman David Postman said the governor’s initial concern is for the workers but emphasized that budget constraints cannot be an excuse to delay response to the leaking tanks.

“The federal government has a commitment to the people of Washington State to clean up Hanford and the governor will do everything possible to make that happen,” Postman said.

The work to close the tanks will continue but may move at a slower pace. The federal government spends some $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup — one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally — so the project is still in line to receive most of its usual federal funding.

The Energy Department recently found that six tanks at Hanford are leaking radioactive waste, perhaps as much as 1,000 gallons a year. The tanks, which in total contain millions of gallons of waste, have long surpassed their intended lifespan and officials are now searching for a solution to stop the leaking.

State and federal officials have stressed that the leaking materials pose no immediate threat to public safety or the environment, but the leaks raise concerns about the potential for groundwater to be contaminated and, ultimately, reach the neighboring Columbia River about 5 miles away.

Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote in his letter that the layoffs and furloughs may curtail progress related to closing the tanks.

The cuts within the Energy Department’s budget are the result of budget turmoil in Congress, where Republicans and President Barack Obama have been fighting over how to curtail the nation’s debt. The budget cuts were designed in 2011 to be so draconian that both sides would have to come together to find a better solution, but they failed to find a compromise.

The $85 billion in cuts apply to the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.

Energy Department officials said their budget was being reduced by some $1.9 billion.

The effort to ultimately empty the tanks is centered around a treatment plant that would convert the waste into glasslike logs for storage. That plant was last estimated to cost more than $12.3 billion. It isn’t expected to begin operating until at least 2019.

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