State officials told of further Hanford delays

SPOKANE — The U.S. Department of Energy is proposing more delays in the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the nation’s most polluted nuclear site, the agency said Wednesday.

The Energy Department issued a terse statement saying it had notified the states of Washington and Oregon that it was at “serious risk” of failing to meet three milestones related to construction of the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant.

“The Department is making these notifications out of an abundance of caution and looks forward to discussing the circumstances with the State as we continue to engage on a path forward,” the agency said.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office was informed by the Energy Department on Tuesday that officials might not meet the deadlines established in the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree.

Ferguson says that means all deadlines established to complete construction of the huge plant between now and 2022 appear to be at risk.

“I am disappointed to learn that the federal government is now at serious risk of not meeting its legal deadlines on the critical clean-up milestones at Hanford,” Ferguson said. “Our office will continue to work diligently to provide our state clients with every legal option.”

The sprawling Hanford site is located along the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick in southcentral Washington.

In June, the federal government had notified officials in both states that it was at serious risk of missing two cleanup deadlines.

The federal government created the Hanford site in the 1940s as part of the top-secret project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades and cost billions of dollars.

A 1989 agreement that governs the cleanup has been amended numerous times over the years. The agreement establishes deadlines for a long list of activities, including tearing down contaminated buildings, treating contaminated groundwater and emptying underground tanks of highly radioactive waste.

In 2010, the Energy Department entered into a legally-binding consent decree after Washington state sued over repeated missed deadlines. That decree established deadlines for emptying 19 of Hanford’s 177 aging underground tanks, which hold 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste.

Many of Hanford’s tanks have leaked in the past, and the Energy Department announced earlier this year that six tanks are currently leaking outside their shells. A seventh, a sturdier double-shell tank, is also leaking into the annulus, the space between the two walls.

Ten tanks have been emptied. Another five are scheduled to be emptied by Sept. 30, 2014, but the Energy Department said that deadline is likely to be missed for two of those tanks.

The consent decree also established requirements for the construction and operation of a massive plant to bind the waste in glass for permanent disposal. The so-called vitrification plant is among the largest industrial construction projects nationally, both in cost and sheer size. Originally bid at $4.3 billion, the price tag has since grown to more than $12.3 billion, a figure that is expected to rise even further.

Hanford produced plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II, and for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal through the Cold War.

So far, the cleanup effort has cost some $40 billion, and it is estimated it will cost $115 billion more.

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