The man who oversees cleanup on half of the Hanford nuclear reservation announced his retirement Friday, creating a second vacancy among the top two jobs charged with steering cleanup of the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
Keith Klein, who has managed the Department of Energy’s Richland Operations office since 1999, said he has accomplished many of his goals at the site and is ready to move on to new challenges after a 34-year career with the department. Klein said he had planned to retire a year ago but was persuaded to stay. He expects to leave by the end of May.
Last fall, the Energy Department announced it was transferring the manager of its Office of River Protection, Roy Schepens, to Washington, D.C., amid escalating costs and construction delays of a new waste treatment plant. In a news release Friday, the Energy Department announced that Schepens was instead retiring, effective Feb. 28.
Together, Klein and Schepens have managed 10,000 employees responsible for cleaning up waste and contamination left from decades of plutonium production at the 586-square-mile site. Their retirements open two of the most high-profile positions in the Energy Department’s program to clean up former weapons complexes.
The federal government established Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced the plutonium for the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and continued to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal through the Cold War.
Cleanup is expected to top $50 billion.
Two of three cleanup tasks identified as urgent risks to public safety and the environment fell under Klein’s purview. Both were completed during his tenure.
In 2004, workers completed the removal of 2,100 tons of spent nuclear fuel from leak-prone basins just yards from the Columbia River. A lack of progress on that project had been the subject of congressional hearings before Klein’s arrival at Hanford.
Workers also stabilized and packaged 12 tons of plutonium in preparation for long-term storage off the Hanford site.
Klein also cited as a proud accomplishment the start of a project to begin cleaning up the Columbia River corridor, where workers have been tearing down buildings, remediating groundwater and digging up burial grounds of everything from animal carcasses and unexploded munitions to rail cars and boxes of “unknown-isms.”
The general public seems to have the perception that no work ever gets done at Hanford, Klein said, but that ongoing criticism is unfair given workers’ successes.
“It can be dangerous work. We want to do things right. There’s a risk of doing nothing, and there’s a risk of doing something wrong,” he said. “It can paralyze, but I think we’re achieving the right balance.”
The third urgent cleanup task, managed by Schepens, involves construction of a waste treatment plant to treat 53 million gallons of waste stored in 177 underground tanks, some have which have leaked into the groundwater.
Escalating costs, delays and construction problems for the one-of-a-kind plant have overshadowed the department’s successes in recent months. A recent review pushed the operating date to November 2019, far beyond the original 1999 deadline.
However, during Schepens’ five-year tenure, Hanford workers emptied the first six tanks of waste. They also finally broke ground on the long-stalled plant and speeded up design and construction.
Tribes have long complained that the federal government has failed to fully catalog all of the contamination at the site, a step they argue must be completed for long-term cleanup to be successful. Environmental groups have long complained about the slow pace of work, and various groups have raised concerns about worker safety over the years.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the nuclear watchdog group Government Accountability Project, wished both men well.
“I know it’s a really hard job,” he said. “I couldn’t say I’d do any better than they did.”
The Energy Department already is evaluating candidates for Schepens’ position and plans to announce a new manager in the coming months, the news release said. The department plans to initiate a nationwide search for Klein’s successor.