Ronald Bliss faces a daunting task, showing up here hat in hand, looking for money to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
His timing could hardly be worse. The Clinton administration has targeted the Energy Department for spending reductions and Congress is looking to cut costs wherever it can.
But Bliss is optimistic he can persuade the government to keep spending hundreds of millions of dollars on his chunk of the DOE operation in Richland, which for decades produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal and now is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
The government can save money in the long run by coughing up some cash now to deactivate the aging weapons plants, says Bliss, who is overseeing the cleanup and eventual lockup of highly radioactive buildings at Hanford.
In addition, waiting will only increase the risk posed by radioactive materials that remain in the aging facilities.
“My goal is for our division to go out of business,” said the vice president and manager of transition projects for Westinghouse Hanford Co., DOE’s management contractor at Hanford.
“We’re paying a tremendous mortgage to baby-sit these old plants and keep them in standby. The sooner we can close the door on these, the better off we’ll be,” he said last week.
Bliss was making the rounds on Capitol Hill with a briefcase full of charts and graphs demonstrating the potential long-term savings.
DOE is paying more than $200 million a year to keep facilities on “standby” or other intermediate status at Hanford.
Deactivation - involving a final cleanup and removal of equipment, ventilation systems and other materials - could cut those costs in half over the next decade, he said.
Administration efforts to shrink the Energy Department have reduced its projected five-year budget for nuclear waste cleanup from $90 billion to $80 billion.
That means the department must make the most of its cleanup dollars, Bliss said.
Hanford’s former nuclear-fuel processing and production plants contain tons of plutonium in various forms - about one-third of the nation’s entire inventory. Residue has remained in equipment and storage areas since the 1980s, when U.S. production of nuclear-arms materials was halted.
The plants are no longer needed, but they will require costly maintenance and monitoring as long as the radioactive and hazardous materials remain, Bliss said.
For example, the DOE cleaned up uranium residue and formally deactivated one former processing plant - the UO3 plant - last month.
The department had been spending $4 million a year to keep the plant on stand-by - but annual maintenance costs now will be about $40,000, Bliss said.
Deactivation of the UO3 plant was the first step in a demonstration project involving the 1,000-foot long PUREX plant the world’s largest chemical-separations plant built in 1956 to recover uranium and plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel.
It will cost an estimated $187 million to complete deactivation of PUREX and UO3, Bliss said.
But doing so will reduce yearly maintenance and monitoring costs from $34 million to $1 million or $2 million.
Future plans also call for deactivation of the Fast Flux Test Facility, which was used to test fuels for advanced nuclear reactors. Bliss said he’s abandoned any hope of reviving FFTF, as some would like.
“As far as we’re concerned, the decision has been made and we’re moving ahead,” he said. “I don’t hold out any hope that anybody is going to resurrect it, at least in this administration.”
It is important to demonstrate to Congress that Hanford is moving forward with cleanup and deactivation of contaminated plants, Bliss said.
“Without deactivation, the buildings will continue to age and become more dangerous to the workers and the public,” he said.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he had not yet been briefed on Bliss’ concerns.
“But anything we can do to save money makes a great deal of sense to me,” Nethercutt said late last week.