By LINDA ASHTON
YAKIMA — The state and the U.S. Department of Energy have negotiated a new agreement that should prevent extensive delays in construction of a radioactive-waste glassification plant at Hanford nuclear reservation.
U.S. District Judge Edward Shea in Richland will be asked to ensure that DOE has hired a contractor by Jan. 15 to design and build a plant to convert some of the lethal waste stored in 177 underground tanks into glass logs for long-term storage.
"This is about keeping this construction on track," Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology, said Friday.
The Energy Department, as part of the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement with the Ecology Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that governs cleanup at Hanford, is supposed to process at least 10 percent of the 54 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in the large steel-and-concrete tanks by 2018.
Sixty-seven of the tanks have leaked more than 1 million gallons of waste into the ground, threatening the Columbia River, which borders the 560-square-mile reservation in south-central Washington.
Earlier agreement called for DOE to have signed a contract by Aug. 31 for design and construction of a glassification plant. But contractor BNFL Inc. was fired in May when the company’s estimated costs for the plant more than doubled from $6.9 billion to $15.2 billion.
"When the Department (of Energy) canceled the BNFL contract, there was a real concern that this was going to mean a multiyear delay. It was important to us that this not happen," Hutchison said.
The new contract deadline will be added to a 1999 consent decree overseen by the U.S. District Court that set a schedule for transferring liquid waste from the leaky, aging single-shell underground storage tanks to 28 newer double-shell tanks.
The double-shell tanks were built between 1968 and 1986 and were designed to be used for 20 to 50 years. The integrity of the tanks is being surveyed to try to keep them sound during the glassification project.
U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said his agency is committed to building the plant.
"We need to protect the Columbia River in order to ensure the environmental safety and the economic vitality of the surrounding area," he said.
The deadline for prospective contractors to submit proposals to DOE is Oct. 16. The new team could use partially completed BNFL designs for the project.
As planned now, construction on the glassification plant would begin in July 2002, instead of by the original July 2001 deadline, with waste processing to begin in 2007.
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