Hanford Plutonium Waste Cleanup Accelerated

OLYMPIA, Washington, March 7, 2002 (ENS) - The highly radioactive nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River in southcentral Washington state could be cleaned up at least 35 years faster than originally estimated, due to an agreement reached between two federal agencies and the state of Washington.

The waste is the legacy of 45 years of nuclear weapons production. It amounts to about 60 percent of all the high-level nuclear waste in the United States.


Washington Governor Gary Locke (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Washington Governor Gary Locke announced Wednesday an agreement reached with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham that reverses a $300 million cut from Hanford cleanup funds that was part of the Bush administration's proposed FY 2003 budget.

A Letter of Intent was signed on Wednesday by the State of Washington, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which modifies their existing Tri-Party Agreement restoring funding and setting an accelerated schedule for Hanford cleanup.

The letter states, "This represents a transformation in Hanford Site cleanup, with the objective of accelerating completion from a 2070 timeframe to 2035, and possibly as soon as 2025. It establishes a bias for action and continuous improvement throughout cleanup." DOE managers have assured the governor and other state officials that they will create a budgetary approach that ensures full funding through fiscal year 2006.

Hanford produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1943 through 1989. The Tri-Party Agreement of 1989 governs the handling and cleanup of the radioactive and hazardous wastes from the plutonium production.

The Department of Energy has made a commitment to restore $300 million to fully fund Hanford's cleanup budget and provide an additional $150 million in fiscal year 2003 to pay for accelerated cleanup activities this year.

"This is the best news for Hanford since the signing of the original cleanup agreement," said Governor Locke, who met Energy Secretary Abraham in Washington, DC late in February to negotiate a reverse of the budget cut. "At the time, I could not divulge the framework of the agreement, but it is clear that the trip paid off," he said Wednesday.

There are 177 large scale underground nuclear waste tanks at Hanford containing 54 million gallons of high-level wastes. An estimated 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquids were discharged to the soil since 1944. There are over 1,500 areas of contaminated soil at Hanford.


High-level nuclear waste in a Hanford storage tank (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
The funding cut would have jeopardized construction of a vitrification plant for immobilization of the nuclear waste in glass. The vitrification plant is also expected to serve in the cleanup of other areas of the Hanford site which may then be converted into industrial parks, brownfields or conservation sites.

As a first step, Energy Department experts will develop a set of specific goals for physical progress by 2007 and 2012 that will represent "a major acceleration from current plans," the agency said. DOE will produce a draft work plan showing how these goals can be met by May 1, and the Tri-Parties hope to produce a mutually agreed to work plan by August 1.

Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, said the agreement is really the culmination of two years of effort by the Hanford site managers and the state and federal regulators to reexamine cleanup goals and priorities.

"Funding for Hanford cleanup has always been a difficult, but necessary fight," Senator Murray said. "The Department of Energy and Office of Management and Budget are promising that the days of fighting over nuclear cleanup budgets are behind us. I sincerely hope they are. The Administration must still present a formal revised budget for Hanford, and I look forward to working with the Administration to appropriate these funds."

"If it weren't for our resolve, there would have been little commitment to clean up Hanford in accordance with the terms of the Tri-Party Agreement," Governor Locke said. "We're going to get Hanford cleaned up faster and better - and save money, too."

The largest Hanford cleanup citizens watchdog group, Heart of America Northwest, applauded the restoration of funding and a new plan for groundwater monitoring and protection. But the group warned that the letter of intent refers "closure" of tanks which the Energy Secretary's review of progress at Hanford, issued with the 2003 budget, had proposed as a condition of restoring funding.

"The proposals in that review and in accompanying DOE briefings would be to leave high-level nuclear waste forever in more than 60 single shell tanks, and declare them "closed" with cement added. Many of the remaining liquid high-level nuclear wastes would be mixed with cement, called grout, instead of being glassified under the Bush Administration plan," cautioned attorney Gerald Pollet, the group's executive director.


Construction of double shell waste storage tanks at Hanford (Photo courtesy DOE)
Pollet said, "The Bush Administration's proposals to leave waste forever would condemn the Columbia River and make the Hanford Reach National Monument into a Hanford Reach National Nuclear Waste Sacrifice Zone. Contract and management reform at U.S. DOE are what is needed to make Hanford cleanup cost efficient, as opposed to simply not leaving waste behind."

On Wednesday, Edward Aromi was appointed president and general manager of CH2M HILL Hanford Group, Inc., the Department of Energy's Office of River Protection prime contractor responsible for storing, characterizing, and retrieving the nuclear waste for treatment. He had been acting president of the Hanford tank farm prime contractor since January 7.

"I am honored to be chosen to lead this company and am eager to continue our efforts to build a team focused on safe, quality performance," Aromi said. "I look forward to working with our DOE customer and my fellow CH2M HILL Hanford Group employee-owners to provide maximum value to the American taxpayer as we accelerate Hanford cleanup."

Aromi came to CH2M HILL Hanford Group in 2001 as executive vice president and CEO from Duratek Federal Services of Hanford, Inc., where he was president and general manager. In that capacity, he also served as vice president of Fluor Hanford's Waste Management Project.

During his time with the Fluor-Duratek team, Aromi was responsible for the management of Hanford's 200 Area Liquids Facilities, 242-A Evaporator, WRAP, 222-S and WSCF Laboratories, Solid Waste Treatment, and Storage and Transuranic Waste programs, receiving excellent performance ratings from DOE every year.